Lost in America (1985)

by | Oct 2, 2012 | - 1 - Gain Stories

An advertising executive who loses his job in a fit of self-focused righteous anger embarks on a motor-home-based vagabond journey to "find himself"—with his wife in tow.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Albert Brooks, Monica Mcgowan Johnson

Director: Albert Brooks

Production Co.(s): Marty Katz Productions; The Geffen Company

The Story on the Screen

In Lost in America, the main character, David Howard, is an executive at a large advertising firm in Los Angeles. His wife, Linda, is a personnel director at another company. And although they enjoy the trappings of a moderately affluent modern lifestyle, neither feels a comfortable sense of happiness in those trappings, and both are possessed of a soulful-but-unspoken emptiness that renders them dissatisfied with life. While David trudges dutifully up a corporate ladder that he imagines will lead to a kind of temporal heaven, Linda finds herself sinking into despair—gradually coming to the depressing realization that the path they are on is empty in the deepest sense of the word.

When we first meet David and Linda, each in his or her own way is truly "lost."

David is an advertising executive possessed by an emptiness that renders him dissatisfied with his life.

When the story opens, David stands at the threshold of what he believes to be a major promotion at his firm. He is so sure of the promotion, in fact, that he and Linda have already sold their house and prepared to move to a larger house, and he has begun the search for a Mercedes Benz automobile to go with his new, higher-on-the-ladder lifestyle. When he discovers that the promotion is not to be his—and that the position has gone to someone whom he considers less deserving—he erupts in an outburst that gets him unceremoniously fired.

When David loses his job, he and his wife Linda embrace the opportunity to break away from the lifestyle that makes them feel trapped—to liquidate their assets and embark in a motor home on an adventure across America.

Rather than mourn the loss of his job, David embraces it as a chance for himself and Linda to break away from the lifestyle that has left them feeling trapped. He convinces her to quit her job and join him as a societal dropout, to liquidate their assets and embark with him on a motor-home-based adventure across America—the purpose of which will be to "find themselves."

Complications soon arise and lead to a rapid descent that threatens their relationship and very existence.

Complications soon arise when at their first stop (in Las Vegas) Linda gambles away the entirety of their assets in a single night, exposing them to a financial vulnerability for which they did not plan. And the problems that arise from that vulnerability lead to a rapid descent that lands them in what appears to be their ultimate destination—a trailer park in the small southwestern town of Safford, Arizona.

Behind the Scenes

At first glance, the theme of the story seems to have a multitude of potential issues. The opening shots, for example, reveal a house full of accumulated "things"—symbols of a modern, affluent life, all boxed and ready for a move to another social station. And their initial, late-night conversation revolves, in part, around the value of responsibility as a defining human characteristic. The "things" may be viewed as inhibiting baggage, and the talk of David's responsible nature—which he takes as an insult—may seem to signal that the story is about responsibility or the shedding thereof.

But the theme of the film is not about discarding or accumulating baggage. Nor is it about taking on or abandoning a sense of responsible behavior. Likewise, although it contains references to freedom, expectation, and the keeping of promises, it is not about those matters, either.

The story at its core is about a special subset of personal discovery that goes by the name of "finding oneself."

The theme is not about discarding or accumulating baggage—it is about finding oneself.

If David wanted merely to discard the accumulated trappings of his lifestyle, he could do so without ever leaving Los Angeles by simply giving away or liquidating his assets and moving to the poor side of town. If he wanted merely to explore an irresponsible lifestyle, he could do so in any number of ways that would also not involve a change in location. And if he were interested only in pursuing a feeling of freedom, he could use his assets specifically for that purpose, rather than converting them into a safety net. Likewise, promise and expectation matter in the story only insofar as they constitute parts of the structure of David and Linda's entrapment—vital pieces of the sense of security that their jobs and money bring.

When David proposes his radical idea of living their lives as motor-home-based vagabonds, he goes over the financial details and appeals to three specific potential activities to be made possible by the adventure: writing, painting, and "finding themselves."

Neither David nor Linda appear to pine for a sense of self-knowledge that he or she possessed at one time and lost. On the contrary, they both appear to have traversed responsible paths from the start to arrive where they are—to have done what was expected of them all along—in order to be rewarded according to the unspoken promise of the American work ethic. Consequently, the self-knowledge that David intends to find is a treasure that he has never possessed, which makes him a gain character.

And because the issue of the story may be reasonably rendered as "finding oneself," the proposition can be stated as:

  • One should attempt to "find" (gain a true knowledge and understanding of) himself, because success in the attempt will provide him with the robust satisfaction that honest self-knowledge brings.

By exposing David and Linda to the dangers of an existence unprotected by financial security, the cascading complications in the story break down the barriers that have long prevented them from knowing themselves. For one thing, Linda discovers a joy of abandonment she did not know she possessed. Likewise, David discovers the weaknesses in the titles and associations that he had long accumulated as part of his self-definition. And both discover the depths of their love and commitment to each other that they would never have otherwise known—as well as their mutual sense of genuine discomfort in the world outside what they think of as normal society.

By exposing David and Linda to the dangers of an unprotected existence, the journey breaks down the barriers that have prevented them from knowing themselves.

But when, in the end, they return to the society from which they temporarily dropped out, it is not as chastened moths who flew too close to an attractive flame. It is as two human beings who are better equipped to live satisfying lives because they know what satisfaction means to them. In other words, David may be said to succeed in his attempt to find himself (incidentally enriching Linda's life in the process), and we-the-audience are pleased that he does so; therefore, Lost in America is a fine comedic example of a succeed/pleased story. And because their journey does not produce any permanent scars, the ending may be said to be happy.

Because their journey does not produce any permanent scars, the ending can be seen as happy.

As we pull away from the streets of New York at the end of the film, the storytellers treat us to credits that imply a pleasant ending for both David and Linda... and cast a nod of approval to all those who have the courage to make the attempt to "find themselves."

Aspects to Appreciate

The principles of the grok approach are "holographic" in the sense that they apply to individual movements and scenes, as well as to entire stories. Consequently, they can be used to draw and hold the attention of the audience in any scene—especially one involving more dialogue than action.

Lost in America illustrates nicely the idea that the principles of the grok approach are holographic.

Lost in America illustrates this principle nicely, because the storytellers infuse even the most dialogue-heavy scenes with a clear intent. Perhaps the best example concerns the scene in which David appeals to the casino manager to return to him the money that Linda lost at the roulette table. The scene is long and dialogue-heavy, but because it involves a clear intent on the part of the main character to regain a treasure (the money that Linda lost), it gives us-the-audience an engaging movement to watch play out—with an equally clear measure of success or failure that we can use to gauge its progress. Either he will succeed and regain the money, the importance of which concerns its function as a shield of protection on which he hoped to rely, or he will fail and face the rest of the journey without the protection.

Because the scene is built around a clear and understandable intent, it is as engaging as any similar scene involving physical action.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).

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