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This Sunday’s spotlight is “Defending Your Life”, Albert Brook’s 1991 afterlife comedy. New DVD screencaptures have been added to the gallery. Three new clips can be found in the video archive. Production notes and review after the cut. As always, please share your thoughts on “Defending Your Life” in the comments. My most sincere thanks to the wonderful Katrin for sharing the film with me so it can be reviewed as Movie of the Week. Thanks!
Multi-talent Albert Brooks wrote and directed “Defending Your Life” and teams up with a distinguished ensemble cast. Included are Meryl Streep, as the woman of his dreams – or anybody’s dreams – Rip Torn, Academy Award-winning actress Lee Grant and Buck Henry. The cast takes us through an entirely new look at the afterlife. No angels, no harps, no wings. Rather, judges, defenders and prosecutors, all there to get you through the process of Defending Your Life. While critics responded to the offbeat premise and the surprising chemistry between Brooks and Meryl Streep as his post-death love interest, the film was not a hit financially, grossing about $16 million in the United States. The Hall of Past Lives is actually the old Fluor Daniel building in Irvine, California. And look out for a cameo of Shirley MacLaine as herself – acting as the holographic host of the “Past Lives Pavilion” (a reference to her publicly known belief in reincarnation).
“Defending Your Life” has been a triple task for Albert Brooks, who wrote, directed and starred in this comedy. The premise sounds fun – the afterlife is a place called “Judgement City” where lawyers review your life – your goals and mistakes – to see if you’re candidate for heaven or hell. For Brooks, as a famed stand-up comedian, the courtroom scenes offer enough room for funny dialogue. And here where’s my trouble with the film begins. Instead of good dialogue, most of the film consists of a variety of punch lines, wise cracks and jokes that sometimes go nowhere. The idea of having your life in court fades as well since most of it repeats and you wonder how many discouraging scenes of his life Daniel has to see as well. The bright light of the film, literally, is Meryl’s Julia. She’s seen as the perfect woman, who has had the perfect life, and won’t be having any trouble getting to heaven. Daniel falls in love with her, probably because she laughs hysterically at all of his jokes (in contrast to the watching audience), for him even hell would be heaven if he could spend this time with Julia. While their scenes are funny, there isn’t anything to do for Meryl. She simply plays “the girl”. The last time she did this, in “The Deer Hunter”, she was given free hand to create a fully fleshed character out of an underwritten role. Here, it doesn’t happen and at times you wonder why Meryl has taken this role. Maybe out of admiration for Brooks. Maybe she was bored. Maybe both. At least, the film works as a romantic comedy, so if you enjoy this type of film, you’ll like “Defending Your Life”.