At the start of “Defending Your Life,” Daniel (Albert Brooks) is enjoying a successful life and driving in his new car with the top down, blasting the new Barbara Streisand CD.
Seconds later, he absentmindedly drives into a truck and suddenly finds himself in a wheelchair, wearing a caftan, being wheeled with dozens of others onto a people mover, on their way to “Judgment City.”
Is Daniel dead?
Turns out he’s in a sort of limbo, in which every recently deceased human from a certain area (in this case, California) must undergo a trial-like procedure where you watch moments of your life and assess how much has been accomplished.
Brooks’ character, like many in Judgment City, comes across as sleep-deprived and dopey. It’s partially because he is, by evidence of everyone else around him, one of the dumbest people in Judgment City. His exuberant lawyer (Rip Torn) is encouraging, but Daniel’s tribunal isn’t going well.
When Daniel meets the exquisite Julia (Meryl Streep), he finds himself falling in love with a kindred spirit, even as his existence hangs in the balance of an unforgiving process.
“Defending Your Life,” like “Joe Versus the Volcano” (released the previous year by the same studio) is an offbeat choice for a big-budget studio comedy. Writer/director Brooks’ films are an acquired taste (“Lost in America” in particular has a devoted following, though I’ve never liked it), but this one, alongside “Mother” (1996), is among his best.
This is one of most peculiar films ever dusted off and carried by The Criterion Collection, the esteemed company that picks up prestigious films for preservation on DVD/Blu-ray. Brooks’ film has been out of print on a barebones DVD for years, so the upgrade on picture quality and a strong selection of extras is welcome.
Yet, despite how innovative and heartfelt Brooks’ film is, it’s also hacky and casually racist. For all the jokes and distinctly Brooks-ian lines that connect (“I thought about you today. Isn’t that funny?”), so much of this is pretty close to the cornball quality of the meant-to-be-insufferable stand-up routine we view early on.
Much of the dialog is sitcom-worthy and there’s a weird, alarming number of jokes about Asians. For the most part, Brooks’ film is so sweet-natured that the genuine moments of bad taste stand out for being so out of place.
The edgiest joke here comes early, when a recently deceased passenger takes a look at Daniel, notes how young he is and asks if he died of AIDS. The disease comes up later too, as Daniel is asked if he failed to pursue a romance due to fear of infection.
I first saw “Defending Your Life” as an in-flight movie and have no idea how the jarring AIDS jokes went over with audiences in ’91.
Brooks is in good form as a lead, but Streep is positively electric here, luminous and entirely down-to-earth. Streep made this during her hiatus from being The Great Living American Actress ™ and tried a slew of mainstream projects.
RELATED: Albert Brooks’ last directorial effort, 2005’s “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” earned less than $1 million at the U.S. box office. “Defending Your Life,” however, generated $16 million.
After her uncannily exact, Oscar nominated performance in “A Cry in the Dark” (1988), Streep took a wild turn to comedy in “She-Devil” (1989) and was the best thing about that guilty pleasure. A more successful role in the admirable “Postcards from the Edge” (1990) followed and, after appearing in this, she starred in “Death Becomes Her” (1992) and “The River Wild” (1994) before making a beeline back to mostly prestigious dramas.
Her “Mamma Mia!” era was well ahead of her, but it’s a joy to see her cut loose and have fun here. Streep and Brooks have startlingly good chemistry, and their sweet romance really comes across. Unlike too many other romantic comedies released during this decade, I genuinely rooted for Julia and Daniel.
A cameo from Shirley MacLaine as herself, making a reference to her “Out on a Limb” reincarnation period, is just another bit that scored cheap yuks in 1991 but is a moldy gag today. Not unlike Cher’s cameo in “Stuck on You,” I wondered why MacLaine would be willing to spoof herself in a manner that is mockery, not satire.
Torn is fantastic in this, somehow bringing warmth and tremendous gusto to his odd character and I enjoyed the prickly turn from Lee Grant as his opponent in the session scenes. The score by Michael Gore is lovely and, aside from the bits that are jarringly mean spirited, “Defending Your Life” is mostly pleasant and enjoyable.
Scenes of actors swooning as they hungrily eat the most delicious food on planet earth succeeds all too well at just making the audience incredibly hungry (Brooks goes for culinary close ups that suggests a master chef prepared every dish we see).
For all the clever bits here, the best scenes are the flashbacks, which are shot in ways to convey different eras and film styles. They are by far the most stylish bits and still pack a punch. The moment where Daniel as a baby (!) protects his parents’ marriage is especially powerful.
At the very least, this is the superior example in the rotten sub-genre of romantic comedies that concern a heavenly influence: “Oh, Heavenly Dog!,” “Two of a Kind,” “Made in Heaven” and one of the worst films of its decade, Danny Boyle’s “A Life Less Ordinary” (1997).
While Brooks’ film is thoroughly non-denominational in its depiction of the afterlife, the emphasis on eliminating fear and the nature of an upper-class society, in which nearly everyone is white and rich, comes across as a commentary on certain religious groups in California. I don’t need to say which ones.
Actually, let’s explore this.
Judgment City is made up of rich, powerful bureaucrats who brag of enormous IQs, having no fear to plague their existence, and subject the newbies to scheduled interrogations. Doesn’t that sound a little bit like Scientology? Is Brooks spoofing the sterile optics, procedures and feel of the religion?
If this is a satire of the religion, it’s as gentle as they come.
A far more probing, underrated portrayal/veiled spoof of Scientology, made when the church was untouchable in the media, was “Wild Palms,” the ambitious, Oliver Stone-produced 1993 mini-series.
It’s no wonder this odd, hard-to-describe but crowd-pleasing comedy didn’t connect with audiences in theaters but has developed a following (which isn’t, however, the same as saying it has aged well).
The final scene is as maudlin as they come but also such a satisfying, feel-good conclusion, Brooks and Streep get away with it. While the film overall is too dated and spotty to properly claim classic status, there is something refreshingly odd about it, which is a quality present in all of Brooks’ film as writer/director.