Released 30 years ago this month, the Albert Brooks comedy about what REALLY happens after you die still resonates.
When Defending Your Life first came to video in late 1991, I was already a video store geek and was well aware of its presence even though I had firmly decided that it wasn’t going to be for me. Around 20 years later, I finally watched it and simply couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to embrace the whimsical high-concept comedy and all of it joys. I had always rather thought of Defending Your Life as the “bomb” in the Albert Brooks canon since the film never came close to the acclaim celebrated by earlier efforts Modern Romance and Lost in America. Still, this incredibly winning tale of what comes next after death never ceases to surprise with its incredibly Brooks-ian edge and its utterly tender nature.
Written and directed by Brooks, Defending Your Life saw him starring as Daniel Miller, a low level executive who upon buying a new car for his birthday, immediately dies in an auto accident. Soon, Daniel finds himself transported to a place in the afterlife known as “Judgement City,”; a resort-like town where those who have died must face a trial of sorts where various moments in a person’s life are examined in order to determine whether they are allowed to move onto heaven or must return to earth in order to “try again.”
Known as the West Coast Woody Allen, Brooks has made a career out of creating characters who are never being able to fully reconcile themselves with the intricacies of daily life while at the same time, employing a comedy backhand with one-liners that come second to none. All of the above is evident in Defending Your Life’s Daniel, no matter what he is going through. “How did you die,” an unfunny comic asks him at a comedy club show in Judgment City. “On stage like you,” is his instant reply. In many ways, Defending Your Life is the quintessential Brooks creation since it allows him to engage in more self-deprecating humor than normal given Daniel’s current situation. With everyone on trial assigned to hotels according to how brave and bold they were when they were alive, Daniel is dismayed to discover that the lovely and serene Julia (Meryl Streep) is staying in Plaza-like hotel while he is somewhere quite opposite. “Where are you staying,” she asks him. “Obviously at the place for people that weren’t very generous and didn’t adopt anybody,” he replies. “I’m at the Continental. Come over one day; we’ll paint it.”
Defending Your Life is first and foremost an Albert Brooks film, which means there’s no shortage of sly wit and lovable cynicism in any one scene. It therefore comes as no surprise that humor is Daniel’s strongest asset. It’s the one area where he’s perhaps the most self-assured and comfortable. It should also come as no surprise then that Brooks gives saves the character’s funniest moments for when he’s in court having to go over the times on earth he never took a leap of faith in himself. When the prosecuting attorney (Lee Grant) brings up the fact that Daniel didn’t take an opportunity to invest in Swiss watches, she cites it as a true example of his risk-averse character. “What did you finally invest in, Mr. Miller, do you remember,” she asks him. “Um, uh… cattle,” he sheepishly answers. “And what happened to the cattle,” she asks. “I don’t know; I never got a straight answer. All I know is that their teeth fell out.”
In the midst of the plentiful humor in the movie, Defending Your Life does indeed make a solid effort to examine the concept of fear in a person’s everyday existence. Through Daniel, we see a man who has been governed by fear as well as doubt and crippling insecurity for so much of his life, he’s stopped trying to conquer it and has instead trained himself to live with it. Because of this, Daniel sees his worst nightmare come true when he finds out that he’s “on trial for being afraid.” The judging Brooks gives Daniel in the script isn’t necessarily harsh, but it is fair. Moments from the past including accepting the first salary offer at a new job, covering for a classmate before later throwing him under the bus and especially not being able to fully acknowledge his feelings for Julia (who is just as smitten with him as he with her) are all instances faced by each of us in one form or another which have likewise given us pause. Because of this, Defending Your Life works and resonates with the audience due to how it eventually stops asking Daniel to justify his past and instead try to figure out why he led the life he lived.
With Defending Your Life, Brooks seamlessly moved from one of the keenest observers of the 1980s to offering up an unorthodox take on a decade filled with self-analysis and new age concepts. His two other writing/directing/acting efforts from the 90s, 1996s Mother and 1999s The Muse continued this trend with characters struggling to find a part of themselves they felt got lost along the way. But none managed the emotional pull that Defending Your Life did. When at the film’s end Daniel is called upon to make the kind of gutsy move he spent a lifetime avoiding, it’s impossible not to tear up at the sight of this man who finally got fed up with being afraid. It’s the fitting end to a magical adventure that’s grounded in a smart, funny and touching experience.
Defending Your Life is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.