Blog Directory CineVerse: Nest egg blues

Nest egg blues

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Blogger Rob Thomas has suggested that Albert Brooks' "Lost in America" is a horror movie for the middle class. I think he's certainly on to something. Because, although it's thoroughly suffused with rich layers of comedy, this picture was built to make 30-somethings and older squirm. It's an incredibly simple story that turns on a dime by the start of its second act, after Brooks' character David awakens in a Vegas hotel to find that his wife has gambled away their nest egg. Suddenly, their dreams of dropping out of society and enjoying carefree lives on the road--comfortably protected by their stashed savings--are kaput. The stress this puts on David and their marriage and the practical realities of their situation make this a more resonant film than another cookie-cutter comedy would have been. For more evidence, consider the following, discussed yesterday at our CineVerse meeting:


  • The Baby Boomer hippies and countercultural idealists of the sixties meet a reality check in the Reagan era 1980s. Their revolution never came to pass; they were compelled to grow up, get jobs, get married and live in the suburbs. 
  • The sad fact that the idealism and dreams of our youth are usually killed by the practical realities of older age. 
  • Dissatisfaction with the yuppie lifestyle, bourgeois standards, and the status quo. The moral learned here is, it’s okay to want more out of life, but we should also appreciate what we have and make the most out of being in the Establishment and the mainstream. 
    • Criterion Collection essayist Scott Tobias wrote: “If there’s a defining mood to Brooks’s work as writer/director/star, it’s one of profound restlessness and dissatisfaction, often followed closely by the shame of leading a life of privilege and comfort and its never being enough. As David, Brooks wants for nothing but perspective, and the price for that perspective is the liquidated value of his material possessions and a sizable share of his dignity and self-worth. In the film’s moral reckoning, it’s a fair sum.” 
    • Roger Ebert echoed that point. He said the film is “about the much more universal subjects of greed, hedonism and panic. What makes it so funny is how much we can identify with it. Brooks plays a character who is making a lot of money, but not enough; who lives in a big house, but is outgrowing it; who drives an expensive car, but not a Mercedes-Benz; who is a top executive, but not a vice president. In short, he is a desperate man, trapped by his expectations.” 
  • There’s an irony to David’s “Easy Rider”-following ethos: he and his wife actually travel farther than Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda do in “Easy Rider,” yet they seem to soak in little of it, moving from place to place quickly and seeming to take a lot of it for granted—like Hoover Dam. 
  • The old adage “you can’t go home again” is proved wrong here; you CAN go home again, but at a price (in this case, the price is conforming to society, acquiescing to your old lifestyle and groveling to get your job back). 
  • To truly drop out of society, get off the grid, and live life free of conformity, you have to go all the way and be willing to take major risks. David’s plan is shown to be half-assed because he plays things relatively safely—rationalizing, budgeting, nest egg planning, etc. 
    • Chuck Bowen, writer for Slant Magazine, summarized this best: “Linda’s meltdown at the casino parallels David’s botched professional meeting. In essence, Linda is calling David out on his hypocrisy. If you want to drop out, you must be willing to throw everything into the wind. Linda’s determination to win at roulette, which ends up costing the couple hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few hours, is frightening and poignant. Most Americans are nourished by capitalism, in terms of the comfort it insidiously provides and the sense of reward it triggers when we measure up to its demands, which Baby Boomers discovered when their revolution came to zilch. What could this intangible “freedom,” for which we’re conditioned to resent ourselves for not achieving, offer that’s comparable? Lost in America is resonant because it doesn’t superficially indict David and Linda, rewarding our unearned feelings of superiority. Brooks criticizes yet empathizes with the couple’s yearning to prove that they aren’t simply puppets on a corporate stage…David and Linda are automatons who ironically achieve individuality by embracing conformity.” 
  • Real Life 
  • Modern Romance 
  • Defending Your Life 
  • Mother 
  • The Muse 
  • According to Tobias: 
    • His films “are often about grand experiments undone by the flaws of their originators. Real Life riffed on the contrivances of the landmark PBS documentary An American Family, which posited the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, as a stand-in for the suburban middle class. In Brooks’s hands, the presence of a Hollywood film director and a swarming camera-helmet-clad crew distorts and perverts “reality” at every turn. In thumbing his nose at documentary realism, he wound up predicting a dominant TV genre before the Kardashian sisters were even born.” 
    • “His filmmaking style is rigorously observational, scoring laughs less on throwaway banter than through the steady accumulation of misfortune.” 
    • “The common thread through all these mishaps is the limitations of money and status—how neither ever quite delivers on its promises.” 
  • According to Film Inquiry writer Benjamin Wang, Brooks’ movies “use cinema as a device to explore their characters’ anxiety about lacking control over their surroundings.” 
    • Wang points to a tone of detachment evident in “Lost in America.” It “makes its detachment visible in the way the camera rarely gets close to the characters or places us in any one character’s perspective. Its most visually memorable scene is one of the most distant: it comes with one of David’s most self-righteous outbursts, and throughout, the camera captures the size and jagged angles of the environment, diminishing the characters by contrast. It’s a moment in which we can see David trying to force things into his schemata, but the world’s shape just doesn’t fit.” This detachment “allows the film to look at David’s delusions from a perspective that exposes how the world influences them, preys on them, and tolerates them.” 
  • Some critics have noted that Brooks’ apes Stanley Kubrick’s methods used in “The Shining” to achieve a kind of tension and uneasiness in this film. 
    • Blogger Rob Thomas suggested: “The film opens with a long tracking shot, the camera winding through the upper-middle-class home of David and xx. It could be the opening to a home invasion thriller…Brooks uses a long tracking shot again when David is at the office, about to go see his boss to get what he is convinced is a promotion. The camera follows David through the winding corridors of the office, in a way that reminded me of the camera following Danny pedaling through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” 
  • Easy Rider 
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation 
  • The Long, Long Trailer 
  • Woody Allen comedies

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