Movies That Stay With You: The Cynical Optimism of Albert Brooks' 'Defending Your Life'
As one of those lucky kids who had HBO growing up, there was a regular rotation of films that seemed to live on our TV. Movies like Three Amigos, Airplane!, or 9 to 5. Often with these films I’d never see them in linear order, but always picking them up whenever they’d come on, these were the prehistoric times, before “on-demand” viewing or online streaming. Even having a magic box that brought movies to your home was a luxury and you were happy to have it.
Such was the case for me with Defending Your Life. I must have watched this movie a hundred times or more as a kid, and yet I can’t say I ever saw the start of it until I was an adult and it showed up again on HBOGo (and now it’s currently on Netflix). Still, even as a pre-teen, I was able to sort out the plot. Albert Brooks (who wrote and directed) is a recently deceased man (turns out he drove his car into a bus while rocking out to Barbara Streisand) who finds himself in Judgement City, a version of the afterlife that looks and feels like an early ’90s American city. Here Brooks’ character reviews clips from nine different days of his life (the number varies from person to person) to determine if his soul is ready to move on to the next plane of existence or if he must be reincarnated to try again.
There’s various reasons why a soul might not be ready to move on, but for Brooks’ Daniel Miller, the big hold up is fear. Not unlike most of Brooks’ characters, including even Marlin in Finding Nemo, Daniel has lived a life of neurotic self doubt, hesitant to act even when he desperately wanted to. From the glimpses he gets of past lives at the “Past Life Pavilion” in Judgement City, this has been a consistent problem.
Examining his own shortcomings through an absurd premise is pretty common territory for Brooks, including films like Mother, The Muse, and Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, in which he literally plays himself by name. But in none are the stakes quite as high as in Defending Your Life, where the question of if his fears are truly ruining his life has been a timeless one, and one that could ultimately end with his soul being disregarded by the universe.
That premise sounds like one that could get stuck in dark, depressing mire rather quickly were it not for the fact that Brooks’ Judgement City is full of ridiculousness, like the ability to eat whatever you want and not get fat, the overly eager servers who insist on bringing you everything, the best being a group of sushi chefs who excitedly announce the business of their customers to each other. There’s also the running gag of comparing brain sizes, witnessing a terrible comedian eat it onstage at a club called The Bomb Shelter, still my favorite fictional comedy club name ever, and most importantly, a rather sweet romantic subplot featuring Meryl Streep as another recently deceased arrival to Judgement City, whose life is in far less need of defending that Daniel’s.
For a movie about death and the nature of fear and failure, Defending Your Life remains one of the most uplifting movies I’ve ever seen. It’s the closest depiction that I’ve ever seen to how I imagine the afterlife would be if one exists, although that’s arguably a perspective I gained from having seen this movie at such an influential age. It’s a movie about never truly giving up, because it’s never too late to change things you don’t like, and that hope can be found in the most unlikely of places.
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