From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Defending Your Life (1991)
And so at last my little tour through the early films of Albert Brooks concludes. (Feel free to check out my reviews of Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985).) Defending Your Life is probably the Albert Brooks movie that I’ve seen the most — but still, it had been many years since my last viewing, so it was great fun to take another look at the film.
In a brisk opening (a model of efficient story-telling), we’re introduced to Daniel Miller, a mid-level executive who, although he seems to be doing well enough at work that he’s able to buy himself an expensive car to celebrate his birthday, seems to live a fairly lonely life. While taking his new car out for a spin, Daniel gets distracted and winds up driving directly into a bus. When he next opens his eyes, he’s in Judgment City, and the movie is off.
Judgment City isn’t heaven or hell, as it’s explained to Daniel — it’s a way-station in which the recently dead are judged to see if they’re ready to move on to the next stage of their existence, or if their souls need to be sent back down to Earth for another go. Everyone has an opportunity to defend their life in a courtroom-like setting (though Daniel is repeatedly told that it’s not really a trial) before the final decision is made.
The tag-line of Defending Your Life is “the first true story of what happens after you die.” One of my friends is fond of saying that he fervently hopes that that is true. There is something appealing, I must agree, to the notion that we’ll all have an opportunity to defend our lives — the actions we took, the choices we made — in the afterlife. Though he and I aren’t quite sure we agree with Mr. Brooks’ depiction, in this film, that whether one has overcome one’s fear is really the most important question on which one’s life should be judged. It’s an interesting perspective, and it certainly provides for some fine drama in this film, but I tend to think that there are other, better ways in which one’s merit could be evaluated. I’m sure there are some quite fearless people out there who are also complete jerks!
It’s a credit to Mr. Brooks’ ambitions that he has created a comedic film that can also prompt such serious questions and thought. Defending Your Life is certainly a comedic film, though as always Mr. Brooks isn’t afraid to let several minutes pass without any big punchlines.
The best source of laughs in the film is probably Rip Torn, wonderfully cast as Daniel’s defender, Bob Diamond. Diamond is tasked with helping Daniel prove that he is ready to move on, and Mr. Torn is tough, gruff, and quite endearing in the role. Lee Grant doesn’t get to have nearly enough fun, but she’s still solid as the Mr. Diamond’s foil, the prosecutor Lena Foster. There are some fun cameos in the film (Shirley MacLaine plays herself, and Buck Henry kills as the nearly-silent Dick Stanley), and then there is Meryl Streep as Julia, the woman Daniel meets in Judgment city. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Ms. Streep more in a film than here — she is luminous as the kind, free-spirited woman with whom Daniel feels an immediate intimacy when they meet. The thumbs up she gives Daniel after taking her sweet time eating a loooooong piece of pasta is possibly my favorite moment in the film.
Defending Your Life may be the most heartwarming film Albert Brooks ever made. It’s funny, but never bitingly so. The humor is gentle, and Mr. Brooks has the confidence and the patience to allow the jokes to come at their own pace, when appropriate for the story. (I’ve commented several times now that this isn’t a joke-a-minute film, but Mr. Brooks does know when to bring with the funny. The montage of Daniel’s mistakes and misjudgments, when it comes, is a hysterical bit of business.) The ending is more unambiguously happy, I think, than any of Mr. Brooks’ other films. But it doesn’t feel like a cop-out — the film is strong enough that the happy ending feels earned.
I’m not sure I agree with the NPR quotation on the DVD case that Defending Your Life is “the best American comedy in years,” but it is a terrific, warm-hearted film. I enjoyed revisiting it!