All of us, at one point or another, have wondered what happens after death. Movies and TV shows have been asking the same question for decades, but it seems to me Hollywood constantly goes with the same options:
- Science fiction/horror
- comedy/slapstick comedy
Neither option is a great option because both have been done over and over again. However, back in 1991, Albert Brooks created “Defending Your Life,” one of the best (and most creative) films about what happens after we die.
I first saw “Defending Your Life” a couple of years after it came out. It just happened to be on HBO or Showtime one night I couldn’t sleep. This was one night I was glad to have insomnia, otherwise I may have never seen this movie.
The idea of this film is that after death we pass on to a sort of heavenly way station where we are given the opportunity to defend certain moments our most recent lifetime. If successful, we get to move on to heaven. If not, we have to go back and start a new life and try again.
The process resembles an American courtroom, with a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and judge, or in this case a panel of judges. This “trial” isn’t because you did anything wrong while on earth. The basic idea is to find out did you do your best with the opportunities you had?
In the movie, Brooks plays Dan Miller, a successful exec who drives his new BMW and plows it into a bus while trying to adjust the CD player. He wakes up in a place named Judgment City, which is made up of office and hotel complexes. Dan is given a room in one of the hotels, and at first he’s understandably shocked at learning he’s dead.
But the hotel staff takes good care of him and the other guests. Dan is soon dressed in a flowing white gown, whisked around the city on a trolleys, and told he can eat all he wants because the food here does not contain calories. After the best breakfast he’s ever had, Dan meets his genial, or defense attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn). We also meet the hard-edged prosecutor they are up against, Lena Foster (Lee Grant). In the courtroom we see flashbacks to 9 days in Dan’s life, and he must try to explain why he’s always afraid.
Nobody except Albert Brooks could have played this role. Why you may ask? Because no other actor in the world could or can play insecurities the way Albert Brooks has for decades. And no other actor could deliver the shocked and amazed reactions the part called for.
As if Dan didn’t have enough to worry about in Judgment City, he soon meets and falls for another guest in Judgment City. She is the complete opposite of Dan: sweet, open-minded, happy, and unafraid. The woman is named Julia and played by Meryl Streep, who just like Brooks with his part, is the only actress capable of providing Julia with that great laugh. I also love how Julia takes advantage of the all you can eat perk.
The movie is funny, charming, and filled with hope. But one of my favorite aspects of “Defending Your Life” is the world building by Albert Brooks. There is an answer for every question you may have as the viewer, for example: Why there are no children in Judgment City; why this place exists in the first place; and why we use so little of our brain power.
Another thing, every place Dan and Julia visit in the movie has a reason for being there and is fully developed. Two of my favorite places they go to are the sushi restaurant where you get the same number of Sake shot as the number of days your trial is looking at.
And of course, there’s Past Lives Pavillion, hosted of course by Shirley MacLaine. Here Julia discovers he she was once the heroic Prince Valiant. He sees he was once African warrior being chased by a lion. “Who are you?” calls Streep. “Lunch,” replies Brooks.
No matter how many times I’ve seen “Defending Your Life” over the years, it’s always like I’m seeing it for the first time. There is no way to explain how much joy I get from watching each new expression on Brooks’s face as he faces the trial and his new surroundings.
This is definitely Albert Brooks’s most underrated movie and he gives an equally underrated performance. Meryl Streep lights up the screen with her joy and need for adventure. And if you haven’t seen “Defending Your Life,” you’re missing out!