Defending Your Life (1991)

29 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Everybody has their own visions of it, and Albert Brooks decides to share his vision in a film he wrote, directed, and starred in called “Defending Your Life,” a film with wonderful ideas about life after death.

Just imagine if you will. You just bought a new convertible and decide to give it a drive around the city. You listen to the radio and you’re just so happy. But then something drops on the floorboard of the passenger side and you bend down to pick it up while the vehicle is in motion. And then, as luck would have it, an oncoming bus hits you. Whoops. That’s funnily tragic, but then you wake up in Judgment City. That’s exactly what happens to Brooks’ lead character Daniel Miller in the first few minutes of “Defending Your Life.”

You see, apparently there is no heaven or hell (although there isn’t the decision that there isn’t a God). There is only Judgment City. And what a place it is. This city could just be heaven, though nobody wants to admit it. It makes you smarter the longer you stay there and it has the best-tasting foods you could imagine. And get this—apparently, you can eat as much as you want and never gain one ounce of weight. The restaurants are all-you-can-eat. Its one downside—a lackluster comedy club.

Well, there’s another downside. If you’re a Little Brain (which residents call those who have just died and came here), then you have to “defend your life.” It’s like being put on trial for your fears in life on Earth. It’s explained that because people use so little of their brains, their lives function mainly on fear. If the Judgment court has decided that you’ve conquered your fears, then you get to stay in Judgment City and become as smart as them. Otherwise, you’re sent back to Earth as a reincarnation to try again to get past fear.

Daniel has a defense attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), who explains all of this to him. He is called into a room where Diamond defends against a tough prosecutor (Lee Grant), as we see flashbacks of Daniel’s life. The court uses these clips to show whether Daniel has fear or just dignity, and Daniel gets chances to explain himself.

This is an inventive premise and there are many delights in how it’s all played out. But “Defending Your Life” is also a love story. Daniel roams around the city and meets a wonderful, sweet woman named Julia, who has a smile and manner that only Meryl Streep can deliver. Indeed, Streep plays Julia and her romance with Daniel is beautifully handled. They have warm conversations and enjoy each other’s company—a very sweet romance.

The ending of “Defending Your Life” is dramatically satisfying with the right emotional payoff. “Defending Your Life” is a success in fantasy mixed with romance. It has an inventive premise that delivers on its product and just got more intriguing as it went along.

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