Defending Your Life
directed by Albert Brooks
(Warner Bros., 1991)

Albert Brooks plays Daniel Miller, an advertising executive who has had his ups and downs in life and has not always lived up to his potential. On his birthday, he buys himself a BMW with a CD player, and his friends at work give him a stack of CDs. Those three things (CDs, new car and CD player) combine with very unfortunate results. In other words, the main character is dead 15 minutes into the movie.

Is that the the end of Daniel Miller? By no means! Daniel finds out that there is no Heaven or Hell. Instead, the dead go to Judgment City, where they go through a four-day trial or hearing and have to defend their lives. Apparently, the main purpose of life on Earth is to overcome fears and live up to one's potential. If you succeed, you become smarter (you get to use more than 3 percent of your brain and stop being a "Little Brain") and go on to a bigger and better existence. If you fail, you go back to Earth in a different life/incarnation to try again.

This goes on until you move on or "they throw you away." Daniel is a marginal case. His defender is Rip Torn and his prosecutor is Lee Grant. Meryl Streep is Julia, a near-saintly woman who is undoubtedly ready to move on. Daniel and Julia fall in love, but struggle with the fact that, in four days, they might be going in very different directions (not up or down, but onward or back).

This is a different movie. It is a good comedy that will seldom make you laugh aloud, but will make you smile a lot. It also has a lot of heart. Brooks is wonderful as a hapless good guy who isn't quite good enough (or is he?). Streep is cheerful and joyous; I've never seen her be this human, this real, this warm, this light and this approachable. She's usually a great actress playing a serious role in an important film, but not necessarily someone you'd like to have lunch with. Julia is someone you'd want to have lunch with (at least). Lee Grant is great as the tough-but-basically-good prosecutor, nicknamed "The Dragon Lady," and Rip Torn is glib, polished and upbeat, but you're never sure he's sincere about anything or really knows what he's doing. Or, that he doesn't.

Judgment City is certainly an interesting take on the afterlife. It looks like Los Angeles or Houston, only there is no smog, no crime, no poverty and no urban blight.

The concept that the goal of life on Earth is to overcome fear and reach one's potential is an interesting idea to ponder. It certainly has some ring of truth to it. And the reward is getting smarter? Hmmmm.

Oh, and watch for the absolutely fitting and perfect cameo by Shirley MacLaine, as the virtual hostess at the Hall of Past Lives.

Overall, this is a different kind of comedy that makes you think a little. It is well acted and well written. No tissues needed, but be ready to smile. I'm glad I bought it instead of just renting, as it is definitely rewatchable.

by Chris McCallister
23 September 2006

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