Articles, Film Reviews

Defending Your Life (1991)

“This reminds me of Disneyland,” proclaims Julia (Meryl Streep) as she and Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) stand in line at the Past Lives Pavilion. The two are happily falling in love with each other while spending a night out on the town. They also happen to be deceased.

Defending Your Life is an imaginatively humorous story of what happens after death. Written and directed by Brooks, the film follows his character Daniel who is killed in a car accident prior to the film’s opening credits. The next time we see him, he is being pushed on a wheelchair amongst what looks to be an endless assembly line of hospital patients. From there, he is taken to a tram and formally welcomed to Judgment City, an area where the recently deceased are judged for the lives they lived on earth.

There’s a lot to be taken in right away because of the complexity of Daniel’s situation. The film itself is a hybrid of such multiple genres that it transcends any typical synopsis. If I had to describe it in as simple of a sentence as possible, I’d say it would be like a Woody Allen comedy set in a utopian afterlife with elements of an American courtroom drama and romantic comedy.

The whole film has an amusement park feeling. From the Judgment City trams to a whole slew of resort hotels, the entire purgatorial setting is so well established and kooky that I was afraid this would be a one-joke film, where the mere situation is the only humor supplied. Though, to my surprise, this was not the case. There is a healthy balance of plot, character, and setting that propel a sort of underlying maturity in which death and, more importantly, life are placed into perspective.

By only getting an initial six-minute glimpse of Daniel’s life on earth, the film is set up in a way that asks us to question what kind of life Daniel lived. This is when the courtroom drama aspect of the film comes into play, as Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) is appointed to aid Daniel in his defense to prove that he has overcome his fears and lived a satisfying life. If successful, Daniel will then move on to the next phase of existence. But because this trial involves dissecting parts of a lifespan, Daniel has time on his hands in Judgment City.

Outside of the pensive defense case, Daniel begins to fall head over heels for the radiant Julia. With her, Daniel could probably be in hell and still be completely at ease. Of course this is all very reasonable because of the magical quality that Streep brings to her character. It is this romantic relationship that raises the stakes for Daniel’s defense, as winning would mean being able to continue with Julia to the next phase of life.

The film accompanies the themes that Brooks explored in his previous directorial effort, Lost in America (1985), where a man and his wife take a stand and abort their yuppie lives for the open road. In that film, the lead characters seized the moment and did something drastic with their lives; i.e., an act of fulfilling their mutual midlife crises. But what if you were too selfless to have a moment of carpe diem? That’s what Defending Your Life is all about.

Viewers who only know Brooks from his villainous turn as Bernie Rose in Drive (2011) or as the voice of Nemo’s not-so-funny clownfish father, Marlin, in Finding Nemo (2003) should definitely watch Defending Your Life. The film is a prime example of a comedian expressing himself truthfully and without barriers to stop him from undertaking dramatic themes every once in a while. After all comedy doesn’t work if there isn’t some sort of emotional tension to relieve of.


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