I had the occasion this week to watch “Defending Your Life,” Albert Brooks’ satirical look at the afterlife. The film was released in 1991 and wasn’t a big commercial success, but it’s always been one of my favorites. I had forgotten how laugh-out-loud funny Brooks’ smart, dry and wry script was until seeing it again.
The premise of the film is that when you die on Earth, you are transported to “Judgment City,” an Earth-like city where the temperature is always 74 degrees and the skies always clear. While there, you go through a trial-like process defending your life – looking, along with a defender, prosecutor and judges, at events from a specified number of days of your life to determine whether you’ve overcome your fears. If you’ve proven you’ve overcome your fears, you “move on.” If not, you go back to Earth (as a different person) until you are “smart enough” to face your fears.
Brooks plays an advertising executive who, while sorting CDs to go in the player of his new BMW, crosses into the path of a bus; he strikes it head-first and is killed. He wakes up in Judgement City and soon begins the process of defending his life. During the course of his “trial,” events from nine days from his life are examined – an unusually high number. Some are from his childhood, some from adulthood…and one is even from his time at Judgment City.
Rip Torn is truly hilarious in his portrayal of his defender and Meryl Streep plays a fellow “little brain” – that’s what the residents of Judgment City call the dead from Earth behind their backs – Brooks falls in love with during his stay in Judgment City. Unlike Daniel, Brooks’ character, Streep’s character Julia has lived such a courage-filled life that even her prosecutor revels in seeing scenes from her life. While she stays in a luxurious hotel (with a jacuzzi, gourmet chocolates and nightly wine & caviar servings) and gains confidence in the high probability that she’ll be “moving on,” Daniel stays in a no-nonsene hotel and frets and worries – as he did on Earth – about what will happen next.
The movie’s worldview about heaven and hell is tolerable because of the intense satire. Even Shirley MacLaine has a self-deprecating cameo role as a guide in the “Past Lives Pavilion.” The dialogue is witty and engaging, poking fun at the New Age beliefs that were prevalent in Hollywood during the time the film was made. Brooks’ deadpan performance (he also directed the film) is spot-on and the casting (including Buck Henry in a cameo as a fill-in prosecutor and James Manis as Brooks’ waiter in a fancy Italian restaurant) is superb.
Brooks and his cast look like they’re having the time of their lives in the film, and that just adds to the fun. The one-liners (mostly by Brooks) and zingers are memorable and still funny all these years later.