In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
A carpe diem comedy classic rooted in derision for your decisions, Defending Your Life celebrates both its 30th anniversary this month and a robust resurrection via the Criterion Collection — with writer / director / star Albert Brooks’s film getting a special edition similar to the spiffed-up Lost in America from a few years ago.
Brooks’s 1991 vision of what happens after death unfolds in an administrative antechamber called Judgment City. Here, the recently deceased are subject to a judicial review of moments from their lives. How they transcended or succumbed to fear guides a decision on whether they’re reincarnated or allowed to move “onward.”
A more anxious antecedent to Pixar’s Soul, NBC’s The Good Place, Amazon Prime Video’s Upload or the entire cinematic filmography of Charlie Kaufman, Brooks’s film also acutely realizes the perfect existential nightmare in its visual scheme. Assisted by late cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial), Brooks plays this process out not against a gauzy, matte-painted fantasy but instead a beige barrage of institutional rooms — a bland interior in which to be found inferior, an institutional miasma intensely focused on every instance of failure you found in life.
Or so it would seem for advertising executive Daniel Miller (Brooks), who winds up in Judgment City after accidentally crashing his Beemer into a bus on his birthday. Daniel’s got a pretty good defender on his side in Bob Diamond (the inimitable Rip Torn, bringing his mellifluous exposition and masterful timing). But even Bob contends that the icy prosecutor Lena Foster (Lee Grant, in a tricky turn that seems more sinister than it is) will put up a tough case against Daniel.
In the hours when Daniel’s life isn’t being assessed, he explores Judgment City’s comedy clubs, tourist attractions and restaurants. At the latter, someone can eat as much as they want, never gain a pound and avoid the trappings of earthbound overindulgence. But if ever there were an obstacle in liminal spaces of limitless pleasure, Brooks would write (and play) the guy to find it; there’s always something getting in the way of Daniel enjoying the best eggs, sushi or shrimp he’s ever been served.
Then again, something always seems to be in the way for Daniel. But he doesn’t seem to feel that when he’s around the effervescent Julia (Meryl Streep, unleashing her inner goofball as was her wild-oats wont in the late 1980s / early 1990s). Julia is one of few other young people awaiting judgment. (Yes, Brooks explains away cherubic children … and unruly teens.) Daniel and Julia strike up a sweet, tentative romance. But is it doomed by the scales of existential justice that will send along the seemingly saintly Julia while porting Daniel back into a new body on Earth for another round of angst and misery?
Brooks worked on the story for Defending Your Life for several years, trying to crack the nut of a nondenominational exploration of his concept that also didn’t indulge in a pillowy, comforting vision of heaven. Detuning the film of any churchly connotation, Brooks instead settled on fear as a universal governor of decisions — the cornerstone of any belief system, religious or otherwise. And that institutional aesthetic certainly captures it as a metric to be measured rather than a cumulative complexity to be considered. “Self-examination got a bad rap with all the yuppies turning inward,” Brooks told The Globe and Mail in 1991. “I think it’s an important thing to do.”
Thus, Defending Your Life is a film of meaty discussions about self-care and self-worth, restraint and retaliation, and courage and covering your ass. But it also leaves room for marvelous punchlines about dentally challenged cattle, intimidating suit odor, a pie-pushing Italian waiter and the auricular and testicular discomforts of riding a snowmobile. There’s also no shortage of great jokes involving the service economy of Judgment City, where everyone boasts at least 16 times as much brain power as the “Little Brain” humans but still hasn’t figured out how to balance celebrating the souls sure to sail onto the next level and pity for those perpetually stuck in reincarnation. Lastly, there’s a cameo from Hollywood royalty that will draw big laughs from those who remember her ideas on this specific topic.
What Brooks lacked for a large-budget realization of this conceptual comedy, he makes up for with trenchant, sad, relatable and ultimately hopeful notions. That last adjective might have wrinkled the noses for fans of Brooks’s Real Life or Modern Romance that preferred him punkish rather than puckish. But Defending Your Life is a natural follow-up to Brooks’s Oscar-nominated role in Broadcast News (which he did not write for himself) and reinforces that you are not only just the sum of your collective choices, that the tally is always tentative depending on the choice you make in a meaningful millisecond. Sometimes, you can choose to be a smug, cynical sonofabitch. Sometimes you’re the one who realizes if you don’t act now, you’ll lose the only person who ever mattered. Both of them are important survival adaptations.
No matter how Daniel might behave, Brooks nails the most humane role he’s ever written for himself. There is no better visual effect here for the transition from an earthly plane to an otherworldly one than the slack-jawed confusion on Brooks’s face or the manner in which he answers a bellhop’s question with a mixed-message head gesture that’s part nod, part “no.” Every time his court chair swivels back around to face the judges (and the audience), Brooks boasts a facial expression that reveals new nuances of Daniel’s noodge-dom. He also side-eyes judges in hope that Daniel has given the answer they want to hear. But he also lets us see Daniel gaze fully into Julia’s eyes with a hope for the (after)life we can only be so lucky to realize with someone who sees us for all of the good and the terrible and makes the choice to love us anyway. So, too, does Julia connect in that way with Daniel, for she could stand a little introduction of mess into a death that feels as orderly as her life. The film’s climax soars on the counterpoint of Brooks’s physically pathetic scramble with a bravery behind a choice they make together.
“I’ll do the best I can,” Daniel says in the final statement he submits to the judges before they issue their ruling. In fact, Daniel says it over and over. Earlier Brooks movies might have used it as the damning indictment against a guy who didn’t really believe this was true but would say it anyway because he thought it was the appropriate response. But listen to Brooks’s voice break on the last time he utters it. It is literally all he knows how to do. Because it’s literally all we know how to do. It’s a devastating moment that feels like a low point but, in hindsight, feels like the first ripple in Daniel’s re-evaluation of himself, an emotional awakening in the “pit stop” of the universe you won’t soon forget.
Defending Your Life has also never looked or sounded better than it does on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Brooks approved this new transfer, remastered in 4K and free of all the dirt, scratches and artifacts that plagued its previous home-video incarnations. The texture in hair and skin, and detail on the clothes (such as they vary in Judgment City, where the deceased wear unisex flowing robes), is oustanding. Meanwhile, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack sticks solely to the front field but is nevertheless robust. The lively score from Michael Gore hasn’t sounded this spectacular since the film’s theatrical release; you notice just how seamless Brooks’s handoff is from a Stephen Sondheim stunner to his composer’s work in the prologue.
There are some fitfully amusing archival junket interviews with Brooks, Torn and Grant ported over from the film’s initial promotional run in 1991. But the real standouts here are two newly recorded conversations about the film. The first is between Brooks and fellow writer / producer / director Robert Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm), recorded separately during 2020 but expertly edited together by Criterion’s crew. Weide’s questions aren’t as probing as you’d hope, outside of a potential connection in the film to Brooks’s late father, Harry Parke, aka Parkyakarkus. But the banter between people who’ve played out their career in concept-comedy trenches is engaging, as are the anecdotal details like Brooks listening heavily to Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals as he wrote. The other is a thoughtful, monological meditation on the film’s theology from critic Donna Bowman, who explores the film’s philosophical connections to Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre … and how a sublime scene of Streep slurping three pounds of pasta lends embodiment to Kierkegaard’s concept of the Knight of Faith.
Rounding out the package is an inset essay from Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster, who calls Defending Your Life “the perfect feel-good movie for people who usually feel bad.” Much as Life is for Brooks, this is easily one of the best things Aster has ever written.