DEFENDING YOUR LIFE Directed and Written by Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks seems to be a very rational fellow. His screen character is typically a man who listens attentively to other people, does not demand too much of them (or of life) and is always amenable to compromise should a conflict arise.
No wonder a faint air of depression surrounds his movies. Reasonable behavior is not a quality likely to get you very far at this late date in this unreasonable century. Or, as he demonstrates in his soft-spoken but boldly imagined new comedy, Defending Your Life, very far in the afterlife.
Thinly disguised as an advertising man named Daniel Miller, Brooks departs this earth as a result of a rather silly car crash and finds himself in a limbo called Judgment City. It is a not-too-bright Southern Californian's idea of paradise -- all high-rises, malls and programmed politeness, but with no smog. Best of all, you can eat all you want of healthless foods and not gain an ounce.
Nevertheless, serious work goes on here. The dead are required to examine their past in quasi-judicial proceedings, complete with judges, prosecutor and defense lawyer. The court can summon up on a screen any moment from the defendant's life to provide evidence about his nature.
The stakes are not uncompromisingly biblical: heaven on the one hand, hell on the other. The spirit is much more Buddhist: good souls are permitted to go on to a new life, while unworthy ones are sent back to earth to try again. After you've been to Judgment City, the second alternative is not entirely appealing. The highly evolved locals jocularly refer to earthlings as "little brains," because they employ only 2% or 3% of their mental capacity. A step backward becomes particularly dispiriting to Daniel after he meets a brave, smart woman named Julia (played by a sexily beaming Meryl Streep). She is a sure shot to move on to a higher plane of existence, and he would desperately like to join her.
His chances of doing so are not strong. He has been all too reasonable, that is to say too quick to accommodate and compromise in his past life. He has failed to realize his highest potential or, for that matter, all the happiness he was entitled to. He clearly needs more practice in living. To make matters worse, his defense attorney (the excellent Rip Torn) is distracted and dispassionate -- he obviously thinks Daniel could use more time in the minors -- while his prosecutor (the equally fine Lee Grant) is ferociously well prepared. Both, as it turns out, reckon without the reformative powers of true love, and don't comprehend Daniel's capacity to die and learn.
Defending Your Life is better developed as a situation than it is as a comedy (though there are some nice bits, like a hotel lobby sign that reads, WELCOME KIWANIS DEAD). But Brooks has always been more of a muser than a tummler, and perhaps more depressive than he is manic. He asks us to banish the cha-cha-cha beat of conventional comedy from mind and bend to a slower rhythm. His pace is not that of a comic standing up at a microphone barking one-liners, but of an intelligent man sitting down by the fire mulling things over. And in this case offering us a large slice of angel food for thought.