In Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life (1991), it is decided that there is, in fact, an afterlife – but getting there is not as easy as you might have been led to believe. In the movie, we learn this through Daniel (Brooks), a mildly unhappy 30-something killed in a car accident as a result of his own carelessness. (He drops something on the passenger side’s floor and decides it’s reasonable to slowly pick it up without at any point glancing at the road ahead.)
He doesn’t feel the effects of the collision, though, because he’s instantly transported to Judgment City, a quasi-Purgatory that resembles everyday America. Here, other recently deceased members of the population reside – with a catch. Upon their arrival, they are given a little more than a week – as well as a lawyer – to prove to the city’s head honchos whether they deserve to get a second chance on Earth. Or if it actually is an appropriate time for them to move on to the next phase of the afterlife.
Being that there’s still so much he has yet to accomplish, Daniel is desperate to prove that his return to Earth is justified. But, so neurotic and pessimistic, he’ll have to make a solid case for himself. But even this, however, soon becomes second on his imaginary list of priorities. Because soon after arriving, he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), an earthy blonde with whom he falls in love. Now things are not so much about simply getting a second chance. More important is heading in whichever direction Julia is moving toward herself.
The ending to which Defending Your Life saunters closer is an optimistic one, fitting for a crowd-pleaser as intelligent and sunny as this one. Though something of a contrast to Brooks’ other writing and directing projects, which are usually comedies so firmly entrenched in our often embittered reality, the movie is incontrovertibly one of his best. It’s clever and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but it is also effectively romantic, and so persuasively convinces us to get on the sides of both Daniel and Julia. It isn’t hard. Brooks is at his most affable in the movie, and Streep’s performance is among her most embraceable. (Supporting players Rip Torn and Lee Grant, who’re able to keep straight faces while fleshing out generally silly roles, are terrific, too.)
What we come to like best about Defending Your Life, though, is how well its novel ideas are executed. Brooks isn’t the first filmmaker to ponder what happens after you die in a humorous way. But he’s nonetheless one who’s intrigued by the idea and takes it upon himself to invest as much time in molding together a dream world as he is in sketching these characters.
So I love all the little details: how the food’s delicious but has no calories; how you’re assigned an attorney to help you “defend your life”; how everyone is only allowed to wear comfy white robes which purposely imitate the angel aesthetic; how it’s purported that there are no children in Judgment City because they have no reason to prove themselves; how “evidence” in court are “video clips” detailing experiences one’s had in their lives. We’re interested in all the intricacies Brooks has come up with here, and one of the great joys of the feature is witnessing his ingenious inventions.
Defending Your Life is nothing groundbreaking, but what an unprecedented pleasure it is to watch a romantic comedy that decides that, while the romantic ilk’s going to be just as trifling as it usually is, everything else is going to be a reinvention. It works well. And is better at shouting the whole carpe diem message supposedly perfected by Dead Poets Society (1989). B+
George D. Wallace
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
Defending Your Life December 8, 2017
hat happens after death is one of life’s great question marks. Certainly one could go the more cynical route and decide that once you’re dead, you’re dead – everything simply shuts off and you’re no more. But I presume many would also like to believe that following your demise there’s something special waiting for you, hopefully a heaven and not a Death Valley-hot hell. The idea of merely descending into a numbing blackness is so depressing, even if it does sound kind of nice when thought about during a particularly stressful period in one’s life.