DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991) ***
A good comedy about death may sound improbable, but maverick Albert Brooks turns the trick in his "Defending Your Life" by taking spans of past life and adding novel spins on future life. This is the fourth movie made by the likable actor/writer/director of "Real Life," "Modern Romance" and "Lost in America."
Divorced Los Angeles ad-man Daniel Miller (Brooks) is reasonably happy, reasonably insecure and quite representative of yuppie non-values. He gives himself a BMW for his birthday, crashes and wakes up in Judgment City , an ironical replica of a Southern California resort with all the amenities , a mechanically cheerful personnel and Disneylandish, sanitized orderliness . The dead wear white caftans and look like Fellii's water drinkers in the spa of the film "8 1/2".
Judgment City in itself is no great step ahead for humankind except that you can magically pig out on superb dishes served free and instantly, without gaining weight or clogging your arteries. Given our national obsession with food and health, the Joy of Cooking becomes almost the Joy of Dying. So much is made of this that you shouldn't see this movie if you're hungry.
It is no terminal either, but a place of transit. The newcomers must defend (i.e. justify) their previous life before a court . Pass and you move on to some vague but ineffable kind of Nirvana. Fail and you go back to earth, reincarnated , to start all over again in an endless learning process.
Jovial defender Rip Torn informs Daniel that he (Daniel) has had twenty lives. Also that this is no purgatory since there's no hell, "although I hear that Los Angeles is getting pretty close, Ha! Ha! Ha!" . Daniel also learns that earth people use about 3 percent of their brains as opposed to the 30s and 40s of the Judgment City officials.
Daniel meets Julia (Meryl Streep) a lighthearted fellow guest . She makes advances in liberated woman fashion, charms and captivates Daniel. Unlike him, she has few worries about the outcome of her case.
In the racially and sexually balanced court, Torn defends Daniel rather ineffectually while tough, chic prosecutor Lee Grant , with the help of past-life, past-misjudgments displayed on a screen, exposes Daniel as someone who's always lived with some fear or other and has never really fulfilled himself. Things look pretty bad but when was the last time an unhappy ending came out of Hollywood?
Although the Streep-Brooks affair is woven into the script with originality, the solution comes as another version of love conquers all. Even so, all performances remain excellent to the end, with Streep natural as never before in a relatively small part and Brooks once again underplaying yet making distinctive his common-man, common-neuroses persona. This is no mean feat .
With its deliberate tempo "Defending Your Life" is a novel mixture of thoughtful comedy , morality play and inventive episodes rather than broad gags. The first part is enchanting, generating continual smiles or laughter. Later however,without bogging down, the film's logic thins out.
To its credit, the script tries to sophisticate the rather simplistic notions of death fantasies like "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and its 1978 remake, "Heaven Can Wait" not to be confued with the different, 1943 Lubitsch work. But it is a bit too much to view someone as guilty because he is timorous, because he compromises instead of taking the bull by the horns, because he is gauche and hits his thumb instead of the nail.
On the other hand, fantasy is quicksand for films and so few survive -- like "THe Ghost and Mrs. Muir,""Orpheus," "A Guy Named Joe" -- that even getting close to bull's eye is a victory.
[Published May 1, 1991]