Nervy, intelligent `Lost in America' puts Albert Brooks on the map

For comedy with a cutting edge, there's just one competitor for Woody Allen on the horizon: Albert Brooks, the triple-threat director, co-author, and star of ``Lost in America.'' This isn't a cushy position for Brooks to be in. Comedy with a cutting edge is harder to sell than teen-age romances and thrillers, and it has taken months for ``Lost in America'' to edge its way into wide visibility. Allen has a reputation going for him when he releases a new picture. Brooks has a reputation, too, but it rests on two movies that hardly anyone saw -- the clever ``Real Life'' and the forgettable ``Modern Romance.''

Then again, not many people saw Allen's first movies, either. Films like ``Love and Death'' and even ``Sleeper'' appealed mainly to urban audiences on the East and West Coasts, with other viewers showing little interest until ``Annie Hall'' put wistful Woody on the all-American map. ``Lost in America'' isn't a breakthrough of that magnitude, but it's reaching many more theaters than Brooks's previous pictures did. His star is rising, if not exactly rocketing.

``Lost in America'' is the saga of an advertising man. A consecrated member of the upper middle class, he lives the good life with a vengeance. And he's good at it: His prospects include a promotion, a new house, and a new car with just the right upholstery. All's right with his neat little world, until one detail upsets its delicate balance. The promotion doesn't come through, and the strain of this calamity drives our hero up the proverbial wall.

Not a halfway kind of guy, he hits on a bold plan. He and his equally proper wife will stop being proper -- they'll ``drop out of society'' and live a life of freedom and fun. Their model will be ``Easy Rider,'' the great epic of hippie wanderlust. Of course, they won't be irresponsible about their irresponsibility. They'll guard the ``nest egg'' they get from selling their suburban home. And they won't do anything rash like buying a motorcycle. A ``recreational vehicle'' should do nicely, especially if the kitchen has a microwave.

``Lost in America'' is the ballad of their odyssey, with a refrain that pays cockeyed tribute to ``Easy Rider'' -- the rock group Steppenwolf howling ``Born To Be Wild'' on the soundtrack while the gleaming wheels of a Winnebago careen across the screen. It's an incongruous image, not just funny but bitingly absurd.

Nor does the film limit its comic vision to parodies of two specific personalities. By implication, it takes on the whole social and economic class they belong to. It's no coincidence that their first stop after ``dropping out'' is Las Vegas, where a roulette wheel plays havoc with their nest egg. Brooks has found an apt symbol for habits of living and thinking that gravitate toward money with a sureness that's no less chilling for being unconscious. The end of the picture carries his sardonic view to a logical conclusion.

Brooks gives a performance of almost bullying intensity in the leading role, nicely offset by the deceptively timid mannerisms of Julie Hagerty as the ad man's repressed wife. Supporting roles are expertly handled by film director Garry Marshall (who's brilliant as a casino manager) and others.

``Lost in America'' isn't a smooth or gentle picture, but it has more nerve and intelligence than any other comedy of recent months except Allen's nostalgic ``The Purple Rose of Cairo.'' Here's hoping Brooks continues to refine the ironic perspective that serves him so well, and to find targets that so clearly earn his irreverent attention. -- 30 --{et

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