Lost in America (1985) and They Live (1988)

Dir. Albert Brooks. Starring Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty, Garry Marshall

Dir. John Carpenter. Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, Peter Jason

Any fool can point at an American movie from the ’80s and say, with some authority, “Well, I declare! This picture here’s a critique of Reagan-era capitalistic excess!” What strikes me about the pairing of these two movies is the fact that they contain the same self-referential joke. Back when Al Gore was trying to put warnings on the records about mature content, both of these movies make a jab at the groping censorship done in the name of decency. They Live, as one would expect, does it more boldly. In one scene, someone on TV is complaining about the movies of George Romero and John Carpenter as exemplars of guts and gore and explicit sex. Lost in America, as is its wont, slowly guides you to that point through a radio interview Larry King does with film critic Rex Reed. A caller poses a question to Reed: is there too much sex in our movies? (Reed agrees, more or less, on the basis that our imaginations have much more power for that sort of thing than the camera does.) I don’t think there’s a single shared joke between these two, unless I missed a part in Lost in America where Julie Hagerty punches Albert Brooks for five minutes straight, and yet the similarity between them is really uncanny. Sometimes it’s the tiniest zones of interaction which stand out.

They Live, as one expects from a Carpenter movie starring a then-WWF star, is much less subtle. By wearing a special pair of dark sunglasses specially manufactured by a small and mysterious resistance, Nada (Piper) can see that there some enormous percentage of the population is in fact not human at all. Aliens with bizarre, seemingly melted faces—Nada tells one lady that she looks like she fell into the cheese dip—are portraying humans. Even the billboards and magazines and television lie to people: with the glasses on, they bear legends such as “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY,” “SLEEP,” and “OBEY.” This sounds baldly simplistic, and in some ways it is, but I like about the change is that the sunglasses put everything into black and white. One goes the entire movie, just about, assuming that we’ll never see an alien in color, which gives the movie more of a ’50s sci-fi parable vibe. In practice Carpenter uses the signifiers of a different era to show us who’s a real person and who’s peddling some consumerist trash. What’s concerning to Nada, and later his friend Frank (David), is that there’s no good way to know how long the aliens have been on Earth. Did they just arrive? Did it happen twenty years ago? Have they always been here? Characters will hypothesize about the duration of their stay, but there is something chilling about the idea that they could have incorporated themselves into human society a thousand years ago and never been noticed until recently.

If there are aliens on earth and in Los Angeles in particular, then certainly David (Brooks) and Linda (Hagerty) have come across them at some point. David is an advertising executive, a creative director at a significant firm; Linda is a personnel director at a mall. Not all aliens in They Live are yuppies, but so many of them are, and the aging yuppie world that the Howards of Lost in America belong to is one of the engines of the dehumanization Carpenter rails against. In the first post-credits scene of the movie, David, wracked with insomnia, regrets not buying a new house with a tennis court. We don’t play tennis, Linda says, her face still mostly in her pillow. Ah, but if we had a court we would learn, David says. It’s a marvelous tone-setter for the rest of the movie, a note on the arrogance of the upper-middle-class which invites us to scorn them and simultaneously wonder at them a little: they grew up in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and segregation and Vietnam, and there’s still boundless confidence! We know not because we have not, David implies, and in that implication is an incredible materialist statement mirrored in the corrective lenses from They Live – the people know not that they have been infiltrated by aliens because they have not the materials to see them.

They Live loses its momentum after Nada gets into the world’s longest fistfight with Frank, his erstwhile Hooverville buddy, because Frank believes that Nada has killed some cops and done goodness knows what else in a fit of violent depravity. (He’s not wrong about the killing; Nada announces his newfound sunglasses power to one of them, who calls for assistance, and Nada successfully resists arrest by two aliens masquerading as cops.) In any event, Frank has come to give Nada the money he earned, Nada tries to share his evangel, but Frank is understandably reticent to take any sort of advice from a wanted killer. The fight between them feels like a waste of time, even if it is a way to showcase Piper’s WWF skills. All the same it takes the urgency out of the movie, shunting it sideways when it seemed like it was going somewhere. They Live never recovers from that male bonding sequence, becoming, in the end, something of a weaksauce Star Wars, complete with a single target to destroy via suicide mission. A femme fatale (Meg Foster), a TV exec Nada uses to escape from a parking garage and who later appears at a resistance meeting, is haphazardly stapled onto the movie with predictable low levels of success; a good femme fatale doesn’t need to be there all the time, but she probably needs more than four scenes to make a lasting impact. Fittingly, the movie’s stumbling pace finally trips over itself at the end after Nada, fatally wounded by Holly, dies a valiant death revealing to the world just who the aliens are. The ending works in one way—it leaves extremely open-ended the possibility that the aliens and humans coexist in the same parasitic way that they did before, a possibility I think Carpenter even finds likely—but in the moment it feels like Carpenter has just run out of things to say. One wishes for the “gotcha!” of Big Trouble in Little China or the haunting of The Thing.

Lost in America, on the other hand, is a smooth riot, prone to slight dead zones but on the whole consistently hilarious. A great deal of that has to do with Brooks’ direction, which is proof that just because it’s a comedy doesn’t mean that it has to be shot like some cookie-cutter gag reel. Brooks uses tracking shots to significant effect, following…himself, I guess, which is weird to say…around the beautiful agency where he works, with pristine white walls and red trim around every door. He has an eye for the country, too, which is not a small thing when places like the Hoover Dam or rural Arizona are major places to film in; Lost in America is genuinely a good-looking movie, which gives it a leg up on the vast majority of its comedic competition.

Albert Brooks gets in some of his best zingers in the first twenty minutes or so of the picture. When it turns out that he’s being passed over for an executive position because he’s too good a creative (and in the mix being transferred to cold, cold New York), the plastic fangs come out. His boss has a hairpiece, which becomes common knowledge in the office once David begins to trumpet that news. They may not be Nada and Frank, but for a moment it looks like David and Brad might get into a scuffle. “Shut up, Brad!” David says to the guy from New York. “Your song stunk, I hate your suit, and I could hurt you.” His fantasy for the guy who got the senior vice president position is that he will buy a boat, drown, and be eaten by seals. Linda protests. Fine, David says, not eaten by seals but lost at sea. They are probably the standout one-liners of the movie, although the initial comparison of what David and Linda plan to do to with Easy Rider is so funny it hurts. “We’re dropping out of society” is the usual opener for this line of thought, a plan which is insane to begin with and which also turns out to be extremely fragile.

In an attempt to rediscover themselves, to do the things that they dreamed they would as newlyweds, David and Linda decide to leave Los Angeles, cash in everything they have, buy a mobile home, and road trip/buy a little cottage in countryside Connecticut. And that would be it. Retirement was presumably less of a stretch in the mid-’80s, but all the same the two of them look at it as a reasonable plan. (When he’s looking for a job in Saffron and goes to the unemployment office, the guy there laughs in his face: “You couldn’t change your life on $100,000?”) Their friends throw them a party, complete with a cake in the shape of the United States. “I got Florida!” one shouts. Once again, the optimism of what they’re up to is easy to get swept up into. A little drunk, David announces that their first stop will be in Las Vegas, where he and Linda will be remarried. It’s in Las Vegas that Linda, channeling Captain America, makes a terrible mistake; it’s the “We blew it” moment of Lost in America.

In the end, David and Linda, down to their last few hundred dollars, elect back into society; thrust into poverty by the time they reach the little town of Saffron, Arizona, they ultimately decide that they can’t live from hand-to-mouth any longer. Lost in America is a thoughtful, caustic look at impotence. David is reduced to a position as a crossing guard, mocked by kids on bikes; Linda gets a job at a hot dog joint, working as the assistant manager under a teenager named “Skip.” Although David namedrops his old firm with just about everyone, no one has heard of them. Although Linda seems like a perfectly reasonable human being, it turns out that she has a massive gambling problem lurking in her subconscious. The scene at the end where David pops out of a beautifully parked RV and surprises Brad outside the agency is as funny as any other, but it’s also a warning which might be on one of those secret billboards in They Live: “DON’T MAKE WAVES.” David, we find out, was taken back…just with a 31% cut in salary.

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