I haven’t seen many of the comedian Albert Brooks’ movies where he was both writer and director. I’ve seen parts of both “Real Life” and “Lost in America.” The only one I’ve seen all together is 1981’s “Modern Romance” which I enjoyed greatly. Luckily, I’ve been slowly catching up on the director’s output thanks to a new Criterion edition of his 1991 film “Defending Your Life.” In which Brooks not only wrote and directed but co-starred alongside Meryl Streep.
“Defending Your Life” takes a look at what happens when we die, which sounds like the movie might be “heavy” for a comedy, but what struck me most about this very funny movie that takes place in the afterlife is just how charming the whole thing is. It’s a romantic comedy about finding love once you’re, well, dead. Brooks’ vision of the afterlife isn’t centered around any one religious philosophy, as that’s not what this story is about.
Brooks plays an advertising executive, Daniel Miller, who on his birthday is driving home in his new convertible BMW, not a care in the world. Daniel reaches for something that fell into the floorboard on the passenger side and comes back to find a bus coming at him head-on. Miller dies and finds himself in Judgement City, a sort of galactic weigh station that looks like any given metropolitan area on earth.
Daniel meets with his defense lawyer and is told that during the time he spends in Judgement City, his life will be put on trial to determine if he lived a life of sufficient bravery to move forward in the universe. But Daniel lived a life somewhat timid, with an aversion to risk-taking. He worries that if found he failed to conquer his fears in life, he’ll be sent back to Earth to do it all over again.
As Daniel explores the nightlife that Judgement City has to offer he meets the free-spirited Julia, played by Streep. Daniel and Julia began to fall for each other, with Julia loving the experiences of revisiting her life and all the experiences that Judgement City has to offer. Daniel though, increasingly worries that he will fail this trial and that now, having finally found someone, will not get to spend the rest of eternity with her.
“Defending Your Life” truly surprised me. It’s a funny, sweet, and charming movie that left me a good bit emotional by the end. It’s also filled with great dialogue and a cast that is pitch-perfect featuring Rip Torn as Daniel’s lawyer, Lee Grant as the prosecutor, and even an appearance by the great Buck Henry. I also couldn’t help but think of how surprising it was that this movie was made by a major studio. I can’t imagine a big studio today taking the chance on a small movie like this. A movie that is just an enjoyable comedy, with a good dose of parable attached to it.
Criterion’s blu-ray of “Defending Your Life” features a new 4K restoration of the film approved by Albert Brooks, and the original 2.0 surround soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio, with a note for home theater viewers to be sure to listen to the track with the Dolby Pro Logic, switched to on, on their home sound systems. The film looks good, there’s some heavy grain, but it’s keeping in with the look of comedies of the era.
Bonus features include the original trailer and some archival interviews made at the time of the film’s release with the cast. A new conversation recorded remotely between Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide, and an interview with theologian and critic Donna Bowman round out the bonus features. Both of these are wonderful conversations, and most enjoyable to dive into after watching the film. As is typical with all Criterions releases, an essay is included in the booklet that comes with the film, this one written by filmmaker Ari Aster.
“Defending Your Life” didn’t at all live up to what I was expecting, and that’s a good thing. I thought maybe this would be some grandiose, heavy, movie. But it’s an absolutely charming comedy that truly gives one pause to think about their own personal carpe Diem.
It comes highly recommended by me. See you next week.