Defending Your Life (1991)
Written & Directed by Albert Brooks
It makes sense that writer-director Albert Brooks would reimagine the afterlife as a comfortable professional-managerial class utopia. It allows him to continue making satire about the social class he knows the most about. Judgment City is everything a privileged person could want. You get to stay in a nice hotel room, the food is the best you’ve ever tasted, you can’t gain weight, and you’re chauffered where ever you want to go. The only catch is that after a week, you’ll be assigned to Paradise or reincarnation.
Dan Miller (Brooks) is a successful executive in Los Angeles. He’s gotten a promotion and just brought a brand new BMW. While driving home fro the dealership, he gets distracted and ends up hitting a bus. Moments later, Dan wakes up in Judgment City learning he will be forced to relieve nine days from his life that have been deemed a full evaluation of the fear that ruled his life. Dan ends up meeting Jane (Meryl Streep), a saintly woman compared to Dan, who looks destined for Paradise.
As Dan goes through the evaluation process, it becomes clear he’s lived his entire life cowering in fear and refusing to take risks. His defense attorney (Rip Torn) keeps trying to shine things up and convince Dan it’ll all be okay. Dan is allowed to argue his case and doesn’t do a great job based on what memories he has to work with. As our protagonist travel through the afterlife and tells people the number of memories being used in his trial, he’s met with shock and replies of “good luck.”
Albert Brooks sort of softened his edges in this film. The movie has a warm and comfortable relationship subplot that is given a standard happy ending. It’s actually bizarre. Last year, I rewatched and reviewed Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America. Those movies find a perfect balance of satire and still being palatable to a general audience. They never feel pandering or like Brooks is pulling his punches. There are multiple opportunities in Defending Your Life where Brooks could have gone deeper or explored an idea little more.
The afterlife created by Brooks is a lot of fun, and we do get to visit several spots to get the flavor. There’s a museum where people can glimpse some of their past lives. Dan was a frightened African native at one point, apparently. There is a class system that everyone tries to act like doesn’t exist. Dan stays in the equivalent to Motel 6 while Jane is staying in the Four Seasons. I felt like this concept would work exceptionally well as a television series, a small number of episodes, like 6 or 8, just expanding the stories of supporting characters out more.
Streep is utterly charming. She’s not really playing a role so much as being a likable person. This feels like one of those roles she’s become known for, where she just plays a version of herself. I almost wish they had made Jane comically over the top, exaggerate how different she is from Dan. The movie dips its toes in that water but never goes far enough. As always, it’s great to see Streep in anything, she’s still someone that you want to watch no matter the project.