[Fresh to Criterion] Albert Brooks’ ‘DEFENDING YOUR LIFE’ brings serenity, bliss, and good laughs

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE

Rated PG, 112 minutes.
Director: Albert Brooks
Cast: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and Buck Henry

Albert Brooks is someone who I think could have been a Woody Allen-type in terms of writing, directing, and starring in a majority of his own works. His characters were always self-destructive and an exploding bundle of Jewish neurotic energy, but unlike Allen, Brooks didn’t feel the urgency to crank out a picture every year. 

A decade after his relationship comedy MODERN ROMANCE (1981), Brooks found himself in a holding area for the recently deceased with DEFENDING YOUR LIFE. Now, thirty years later, Criterion has added it to its heralded collection, sliding it alongside Brooks’ LOST IN AMERICA

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE was in regular rotation on HBO in the early ‘90s, but I haven’t seen it since then. Upon re-watch, it is way funnier now. Maybe it’s an age thing; thirty years does make a difference. 

Brooks stars as Daniel Miller, an ad executive that purchases a new car on his 39th birthday and subsequently dies when he crashes into a bus. He awakens in Judgement City, an ad-hoc commune for the dead waiting to be processed for the afterlife. Part of the process involves attending a tribunal where experiences from his time on Earth are viewed and assessed in handling fearful situations. When he isn’t revisiting episodes from his life, Daniel, a divorcee, meets Julia (Meryl Streep), who is everything that he is not. Fearless with an infectious laugh, she is also an expert swimmer who met her demise in a drowning death ironically. As the two enjoy the amenities Judgement City has to offer, a bond begins to form. Now the question left to answer is if Daniel has done enough to move forward into the beyond. 

DYL is a brilliant, well-thought-out comedy and subtle in what it wants to convey about death and what comes next. In some respects, it is the comic companion to Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), in which a British war pilot survives a crash only to argue for his life before a celestial court. 

There’s a definite lack of anxiety here than Brooks’ earlier works. Maybe because in death, being anxious would be ironic. The life tribunal by which Brooks is defended by Rip Torn’s Bob Diamond – who uses a whopping 48% of his brain – provides for great laughs be it Daniel’s buckling when negotiating salary as a new hire or how Bob counters the inferences made by the prosecuting counsel (Lee Grant), who is aptly nicknamed “The Dragon Lady.” 

The romantic development between Daniel and Julia affords us a Meryl Streep at a time in her career when she didn’t need to wow audiences with spot-on accents or performances that made her an automatic shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Actually, you can match this along with SHE-DEVIL and DEATH BECOMES HER and see Streep in a string of comedies where she’s wholesome in the afterlife, a narcissistic she-devil in real life, or a highly animated corpse.

With DYL grounding its heavenly trappings, it allows Brooks to play up the celestial bureaucracy at work. Shows like THE GOOD PLACE and UPLOAD are indebted to this comedy, as are Pixar’s COCO and SOUL

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Virtual conversation between Albert Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide gives us a Judgement City all-you-can-eat-and-not-gain-a-pound buffet about DEFENDING YOUR LIFE. They get into how it came about, the production, and the responses Brooks has received over the years about DYL.
  • Vintage interviews with Albert Brooks, Lee Grant, and Rip Torn recorded back in 1991, discussing making the film and what attracted Grant and Torn to the comedy. 
  • Spending Time in Judgement City is a new piece with theologian and critic Donna Bowman discussing how DYL depicts the afterlife and how the comedy offers perceptions concerning life in general. Pieces like this are a godsend (pardon the pun) in taking audiences beyond the comedy’s surface level by interestingly providing perspective and context.
  • Trailer
  • Booklet insert contains an essay from HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR filmmaker Ari Aster, cast and credit information, advertisements for places and attractions at Judgement City, and a note about the comedy’s 4K digital restoration.   

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE may be Brooks’ best all-around work. The writing, humor, performances, even the production design and look. It’s romantic, contemplative, and reflective. I may have been too young to understand what it was all about (as was Ari Lester, which he admits in his essay). Still, those in their thirties and forties can definitely relate, particularly those whose fear and constraints have prevented them from being better versions of themselves. 

Grade: B+

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is available on disc through the Criterion Collection.

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