Albert Brooks’ movies have usually been well received by critics but he’s far from a critical darling, like Woody Allen. Yet his movies have a quiet staying power, and this is especially true of Defending Your Life.
The story of Daniel Miller, an advertising executive, who is killed in a car accident and finds himself going to, not heaven, but a place called Judgement City. Dazed at first, he is not sure what is happening to him, but he soon realizes it’s a waiting place, where it will be decided if he will “move on” or be sent back to Earth to live a new life.
Where the temporary residents of Judgement City are meant to “move on” to is not entirely clear: heaven? A higher plane? It’s pretty much left up to the audience to decide.
In Judgement City, the newly arrived souls are literally put on trial, where they have to witness events of from their lives and defend them to judges who will make the critical decision. Daniel is assigned a lawyer named Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), a more highly evolved soul who uses a far higher percentage of his brain power. (He calls his clients “little brains.”)
Daniel, who was hardly confident on Earth, is terrified of having to defend himself. He is “prosecuted” by Lena Foster (Lee Grant) and thoroughly cowed by her.
He meets fellow new arrival Julia (Meryl Streep) and soon falls in love with her. But he is also intimidated by how good a life she led on Earth, and is certain she will move on without him. When they get to view some of their past lives at the Past Lives Pavilion, he’s even jealous she was braver in her past lives than he was.
Some of this may sound like serious stuff, but Brooks’ movies are always hilariously funny, and this one is no exception. The notion of having to defend your entire life—and who would look good if a few cherry-picked moments were played back to us—is both inherently funny and kind of horrifying.
The way Brooks sets up Judgement City is brilliant—it’s deliberately is set up to look like a city on Earth. The lawyers look (and act) like real lawyers, right down to their conservative suits. Lee Grant, the queen of the intimidating stare-down, uses it to perfection to throw her quarry into a nervous tizzy.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when Daniel and Julia have dinner in an Italian restaurant and Lena shows up at an adjacent table. Another interesting aspect of Judgement City is the food is outstanding, and residents can eat as much as they want and never get full or sick or fat. (To me, this sounds like actual heaven, not a way-station to heaven. I would never want to leave.)
The people who work in eating establishments encourage their guests to eat copiously. The waiter at this one pushes Daniel to accept nine pies to take back with him to his hotel. Daniel has a mini breakdown, thinking this is making a terrible impression on Lena and that this will hurt his case. Julia, on the other hand, eats with exuberance and doesn’t think Lena cares what they do.
It never occurs to Daniel that the “big brains” are testing him, to see if he really is worthy of moving on. Julia, who is ready to evolve, is much more sanguine about the whole process. Daniel, on the other hand, sees returning to Earth, starting a new life, and then one day having to come back and defend himself, much more frightening than the traditional notion of hell.
Lee Grant doesn’t have a huge part, but, as always, she is quite wonderful. As a bonus there’s a nice twist to her character during the film’s very gratifying ending.
Brooks has expressed surprise that the film has continued to impact viewers. He has said that to this day he gets letters from people that say they are helped by it to confront death.
Pretty good for a neat little comedy.