Thursday, April 07, 2016

Defending Your Life

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Albert Brooks, 1991)

Having been struck head-on by a bus after going left of center in his new car, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) comes to in a place that looks a lot like the western United States but is not on Earth. In DEFENDING YOUR LIFE the Los Angeles advertising man learns that he is dead and has been brought to Judgment City for a four-day review of his life. As all of his life has been recorded, the trial-like setting will feature the prosecution and defense presenting footage of his actions in an attempt to prove to two judges what motivated his actions. If he is determined to have lived with courage, he will proceed to whatever comes next in the universe’s design. If Daniel is found to have lived in fear, he will be returned to Earth to try again.

Daniel is a neurotic sort, so naturally this process, which his defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) insists is not a trial, makes him anxious. He can’t fully enjoy what Judgment City has to offer, from the chance to discover one’s past lives to the ability to eat all you want without gaining weight, because he wonders how his life will be assessed. Daniel is somewhat able to take his mind off of this whole ordeal when he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a woman of the same approximate earthly age. He finds himself quickly falling in love with her, yet he resists to a degree because of his expectation that she will be moving forward while he will be sent back to Earth.

Perhaps the cleverest and funniest conceit of DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is that Daniel has no firmer grasp on how things are supposed to work in Judgment City than any of us do in our mortal lives. He can look for meaning in his surroundings, but without understanding how the place works, it’s all conjecture. Daniel is just as insecure in this way station, worrying about how the number of days being reviewed in his case and the modesty of his accommodations might be indicative of the verdict that awaits him. For this short period he is in a spot where fear should not be a factor, yet it continues to drive his choices and outlook. To make matters worse, everyone assures him that he doesn’t need to fret about anything. As writer, director, and star, Brooks taps into the nagging feeling that everyone knows something that you don’t, especially when they appear unconcerned.

Brooks has fun with the idea of a bureaucratic layover on the spiritual plane. Waiting room coffee table books are all photographs from God’s eye view, even of Judgment City. While the deceased are taken to places that resemble where they are from, there’s something amusing in the thought that mundane urban and suburban architecture would be soothing for souls in transition. Brooks also humorously envisions that even in death one can be made to feel small. Daniel has to sit through a blooper reel of his pratfalls and mistakes. Bob pokes fun at humans like for the low percentage of their brains they utilize compared to Judgment City’s residents like him. Insecurity, it seems, is something to be overcome to progress in the eternal.

While Brooks’ character has a nervous energy about him, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE provides a warm, funny space to consider larger questions of existence. Brooks challenges the notion that courageous and fearful behavior are clear cut from one another. Rather, what can appear cowardly may be a sign of internal strength and what seems brave may just be a survival instinct. Streep bestows a peaceful air upon Julia, who lived less fearfully than Daniel, yet even she is not wholly free of hang-ups. Typically an exploration of self doubt would wrap with a skeptical or ironic tone, but Brooks finds a way to conclude DEFENDING YOUR LIFE that feels hopeful and honest without betraying the protagonist’s cautious nature.

Grade: A-

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