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  Defending Your Life Take A Good Look At Yourself
Year: 1991
Director: Albert Brooks
Stars: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, Buck Henry, James Eckhouse, Gary Beach, Time Winters, Mary Pat Gleason, Maxine Elliott, Roger Behr, George Wallace, Lillian Lehman, Raffi Di Blasio, Ethan Embry, Susan Walters, Shirley MacLaine
Genre: Comedy, Romance, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) is an advertising executive, and it's his thirty-ninth birthday today, which means he receives some presents at work and has ordered himself a brand-new car as a gift to himself. What's nice about this is that it has a CD player as part of the radio and he can play his new discs on it, so he puts on Barbra Streisand and proceeds to motor around Los Angeles with her at full volume, singing along: this is the ideal way to spend his big day, he believes. What is not so ideal is that when the presents fall from the passenger seat and Daniel tries to retrieve them, he does not realise there is a very big bus heading straight for him...

If comedian Albert Brooks has a most popular movie, well, it's probably Finding Nemo, where you do not even see him, but he had a career as a director too and among those cult movies he concocted, Defending Your Life would seem to be the favourite. It is not his most acerbic by any stretch of the imagination, indeed he was at his most reflective here as he almost calmly contemplated what could happen in the afterlife, so there were none of the great "blow-up" scenes we would have been familiar with from his other work. But if there were not as many of the razor-sharp character sketches as before, what was there to fall back on instead?

Overall, there was a curious comfort; famously, Brooks' comedian father had died onstage, just after completing a highly successful routine, and that had evidently left an impression on him to lose his parent at such a young age, so naturally he was going to have spent some of his idle moments pondering what happens after we pass on. If there is an afterlife, could it look like the corporate, very West Coast USA landscape we see here? We do hear that this is part of the American experience of the dead, so it could be that other parts of the world get to experience something far more appropriate to their culture and nobody in those locations will have the same destination.

As Daniel discovers, this is not even Heaven, it is a placeholder to check up on the deceased's progress so far, to judge if they are supposed to move on up or return to Planet Earth and try again at getting this big ol' life thing right. This involves a kind of courtroom where he has a "lawyer" played by the peerless Rip Torn, who often secured the biggest laughs and pitches this just right - you would not mind if you met this guy as your guide to the next realm. The courtroom shows bits and pieces of your life, but as Daniel has never done anything particularly horrible to anybody, so no audience sympathy is risked, prosecutor Lee Grant asks the judges to decide whether he has messed up his chances thanks to being fearful rather than the perpetrator of evil acts, casual or deliberate.

This was somewhat mild as a yardstick for our hero, though if he had done something awful it would have overbalanced the tone of pleasant musing over an unspectacular life where some things had gone wrong, but other things had gone well. Therefore to raise the stakes from Daniel's everyman status (or as everyman as Brooks could ever play) he was given Meryl Streep to fall in love with: her Julia was there as well, and she has conducted her recent life with perfection so is a shoo-in to move up to the next level. Her pristine soul was treated as a joke in contrast to Daniel's mundane one, the type most of us will have, and it was a very pleasing conceit, the romance being surprisingly sweet from this director. If it lacked the killer instinct of Brooks' best efforts, it did have a soothing effect to posit what happens next is so well-managed, like the best of the service industries, and wisely you were never asked to ponder any queries about the logistics of this ethereal world. You did ponder what might happen to your self when you passed on, however, and how you would be judged, benevolently or otherwise. Music by Michael Gore.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:

New 4K digital restoration, approved by director Albert Brooks, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New conversation between Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide
New interview with theologian and critic Donna Bowman about Brooks's vision of the afterlife
New program featuring excerpts from interviews conducted in 1991 with Brooks and actors Lee Grant and Rip Torn
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by filmmaker Ari Aster.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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