Title: Lost in America
The Story: A middle-class L.A. couple decide to sell all their stuff, buy a Winnebago, and rediscover the American Dream, which turns out to be a nightmare. When a ill-timed stop in Vegas leaves them with nothing, they realize what it means to really start over.
How it Came to be Underrated: Brooks made ‘70s movies in the ‘80s, and no one knew what to do with them.
Why It’s Great:
- It’s really, really funny. Okay, it’s a little bit funnier if you have a job. Watching it again now, unemployed, it stings a little bit, but in a good way. My favorite moment is when Brooks, now a crossing guard, makes one final stand for dignity: “Don’t Call Me Retardo.”
- The movie begins with Brooks, lying awake in bed next to his sleeping wife, worry about his big promotion, and listening to the radio, where boob movie reviewer Rex Reed is complaining all the sex in modern movies. Yes, we’re supposed to roll our eyes, but not because we’re about to see any nudity. Brooks just wants us to think about what movies choose to show and what they don’t. Every year we watch a dozen movies set in L.A., but they’re never about L.A. They’re about lost places and lost times and lost emotions. Brooks isn’t interested in all that. Brooks’ movies don’t attempt to summon up the feeling of a lost era or invest life with an operatic intensity. He’s genuinely interested in the world around him. He wants to capture what the world actually looks like and how people actually act. Not because he wants to make us feel bad but because he wants to make us laugh and we’re going to laugh harder if it seems real and hits home.
- Brooks helped pioneer the comedy of awkward existential suffering that has now become a jackpot for Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Ricky Gervais (The Office), but he did it differently. Gervais invites us to scorn the self-serving characters he plays and David invites us join in on his scorn for modern life, but Brooks mined the same vein in a scorn-free way. Brooks’ characters are almost always in the wrong, but we support them because we wish the world could work the way they want it to. On the other hand, we’re equally sympathetic to the poor saps who have to endure his meltdowns.
- The comedy of awkwardness thrives on lingering deadpan reaction shots, drawn-out moments and scenes pushed to their painful breaking points, and yet, at 90 minutes, this movie still moves at a brisk pace. The secret is the use of ellipses. For these characters, making each decision is like pulling teeth, but once the decision is made, we jump way ahead and see the consequence, without a lot of pipe-laying in between. The movie is essentially a series of 10 9-minutes scenes, each one of which has the rise and fall of a hilarious one-act play.
Underrated Compared To: How many bad comedies became mega-hits in the 80s?
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Brooks first four films were all underseen gems. The others are Real Life (1978), Modern Romance (1980), and Defending Your Life (1990).
How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, the instant version has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I suspect that this is a “pan-n-scan” version. I don’t know about the dvd.
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