Release Date(s)1991 (March 30, 2021)
Studio(s)The Geffen Film Company/Warner Bros (Criterion – Spine #1071)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
Hollywood has often flirted with the notion of the afterlife in films as diverse as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Sixth Sense, The Lovely Bones, and Ghost. In Defending Your Life, comedic actor and director Albert Brooks creates a kind of way station where the recently deceased stay temporarily, with all the creature comforts provided, while they learn whether they can move on.
Daniel Miller (Brooks), a successful advertising executive, picks up his birthday gift to himself—a brand new BMW—and promptly crashes into a bus and dies. He “awakens” to find himself in Judgment City, which looks a lot like Los Angeles. He and his fellow travelers are dressed in flowing white robes called tupas. Aboard a tram en route to his modest hotel, a guide speaks about the attractions of Judgment City like a tour guide at Disneyland.
Initially dazed at discovering he is dead, Daniel soon learns that he will be on trial to determine whether he deserves to be transported to the next phase (never named though it is likely heaven) or be returned to Earth in a reincarnated form. His defender will be Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) and the prosecutor Lena Foster (Lee Grant). In a courtroom before two judges, the prosecutor and defender show film clips that illustrate telling episodes in Daniel’s life. Some are funny, some are painful.
In the off-hours during his nine-day trial, Daniel becomes friends with fellow temporary resident Julia (Meryl Streep). They are close in age and most of the other guests are much older. They share a sense of humor and find it easy to talk to each other. It looks as if Julia will have little trouble moving on. For Daniel, it’s less certain.
Brooks’ concept of the afterlife is pleasant, with no religious overtones. No winged angels, heavenly choruses, or pearly gates. Judgment City looks very much like the world Daniel just left, making his transition smooth and less stressful. Everyone is accommodating, you can eat as much as you want without gaining weight, and there are entertainment options including a bowling alley and a comedy club. Accommodations appear geared to how well your life was led. Julia is lodged at a luxury hotel, while Daniel’s room looks like it could be from a roadside motel.
This is a gentle romantic comedy/fantasy with many gags, verbal and visual, but Brooks focuses more on Daniel’s story than on punchlines. Rip Torn has a flair for understated humor, which would be shown to full advantage when he played producer Artie in The Larry Sanders Show. Brooks has given him lots of rich, funny dialogue, which Torn delivers matter-of-factly, making it all the more hilarious. Grant is forceful and tough as the prosecutor, never edging into shrill territory. Intelligent, confident, and sharply dressed, she convinces as a formidable adversary determined not to let Daniel’s flaws be downplayed.
Defending Your Life benefits from Brooks’ sharp ear for clever, funny dialogue and his ability to draw Dan and Julia as figures that the audience roots for. The chemistry between Brooks and Streep is excellent and their scenes together are highlights of a well crafted, unique film.
Presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 by the Criterion Collection and approved by writer-director Albert Brooks, this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from the original 35 mm camera negative. The film looks great, with images appearing sharp and details nicely delineated. The first few minutes in which Daniel is alive contain a broad, lively color palette, ranging from his shiny new black BMW to the palm trees, pedestrians, shops, and traffic he passes while driving his car through the crowded Los Angeles streets. In Judgment City, the dominant color is white, from the robes newcomers wear to the bright, sunlit interiors. Meryl Streep is lit so that she actually emits a glow. Some matte paintings are used to enhance the look of the judicial sector of Judgment City. The courtroom’s colors are darker, with browns and the black robes of the judges dominating.
The English 2.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack features nice separation, most evident in the conversations. Dialogue throughout is crisp, with the actors, especially Brooks, underplaying the funny lines. Rip Torn is especially effective in his delivery and appears to be having fun with the role. Daniel listens to the prophetic song Something’s Coming by Barbra Streisand on his car radio as he drives away from the car dealership. The gentle hum of the tram is heard as Daniel is taken to his temporary quarters in Judgment City. Styles of speaking vary. Brooks is contemplative, Torn is assured and blunt, Grant is serious and professional, and workers are pleasant and soft-spoken. Optional subtitles in English SDH are available.
Bonus materials on the new Blu-ray release include a new conversation between Albert Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide; a new interview with theologian and critic Donna Bowman; excerpts from interviews conducted in 1991 with Brooks and actors Lee Grant and Rip Torn; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet containing a critical essay.
Albert Brooks and Robert Weide – Brooks notes that Defending Your Life has touched more people than any of his other films because of its subject matter and universality. He thought about making the film for a long time. His father literally died on stage when Brooks was 11. “Sometimes the darker subjects are the funniest. You don’t have to push too far.” He wanted to get to the afterlife sequences quickly, so only the first eleven minutes tell the viewer about the character of Daniel. The theme of the plot is courage vs. fear as a determinant of a life well led. Brooks wanted to keep religion out of the story. Fear is non-religious and universal. The film is a blend of the profound and the trivial. The transition from life to death is made to be as non-stressful as possible. Rip Torn was hired because Brooks loved his work as an actor and liked the dynamic between Bob and Daniel. Brooks met Meryl Streep at a party, and when he told her about Defending Your Life, she asked, “Is there a part for me?” Brooks had Lee Grant in mind for the prosecutor because she’s a non-nonsense person and a terrific actress. Shirley MacLaine has a cameo that gets a laugh because of her purported involvement with the afterlife. The look of Judgment City is a huge modern corporation. Matte paintings were incorporated into the production design. The ending was different in earlier versions of the film, but the ultimate ending made sense. “There could be no other.”
Albert Brooks, Lee Grant, and Rip Torn – Brooks and actors Lee Grant and Rip Torn were recorded for the television talk show Crook & Chase in 1991, around the time of the original release of the film. As director, Brooks is servicing the script he’s written. As actor, he has a sense of how the scene is going and the cinematographer will inform him about the film’s visual appearance. Brooks comes thoroughly prepared to the set. Torn loved the script; it had laughs and was very moving. He became typecast as a tough guy on TV shows, though he performed comedy on the stage early on. He had to audition for the role of Daniel’s defender. Meryl Streep’s greatness is in making a scene “look like it’s just happening” all the time. Lee Grant’s character hated the way Bob Diamond was trying to get Daniel off and avoid having him face his early failings. Brooks talks about the importance of editing in making things funny. Torn says the cast worked from the script until they had a few takes “in the can.” Then, Brooks would encourage the cast to improvise. A theme of the film is that fear cripples you in everyday life.
Spending Time in Judgment City – Theologian and critic Donna Bowman takes a close look at the film and the afterlife world created by writer/director Albert Brooks. The film has a humanistic focus. A person doesn’t have to be defined solely by what came before. There is a thoroughness about what an afterlife entails. It is several layers deep. Most newcomers to Judgment City are elderly and arrive in the same form as when they were alive. They reflect on an entire life lived. Even in the afterlife, there is still a sense of class. People come from different circumstances and are bound for different places. This creates a hierarchy. The class system is a way of measuring yourself against others. Morality is often considered the sole determinant of the way into an afterlife, but other virtues count. Daniel is consistently fearful of how other people view him. “He’s on display in a very official way.” A number of philosophical views of death and religion are discussed. “Because Judgment City is a place where people grow, then it’s a place where the judgment is not final.” The afterlife is about improvement, choices, and judgments continuing to matter, not just for the ones that happened yesterday, but for the ones we’re making right now.
Booklet – The accordion-style insert booklet contains a critical essay by Ari Aster, color photos from the film, a list of cast and key crew credits, and details about the 4K digital restoration.
Defending Your Life has great heart. The humor is present in nearly every line, some subtle and some more obvious. Brooks shows a definite insight into the little annoyances in life as he pokes fun at all kinds of situations that many of us experience. The film makes a statement about the fears and constraints in our lives and how they hold us back from being the best versions of ourselves.
- Dennis Seuling