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About two-thirds of the way through Albert Brooks’ dramedy “Defending Your Life,” both Brooks’ own character Daniel (the multi-hyphenate also wrote and starred in the film) and the audience itself get an existential wake-up call. The 1991 feature marked Brooks’ fourth time behind the camera, and offered up a big-time idea in an appealing and fun package: what if the afterlife was set up a bit like a trial, and how you lived your last turn on Earth determined if you were able to move on to the next plane of existence? (Oh, and what if you also happened to fall in love with Meryl Streep while going through this process?)
As the film, which has so far seen Daniel’s attempts to prove his worthiness fall disastrously, amusingly short, stretches into its action- and emotion-packed final act, “Defending Your Life” packs a wallop: Streep’s Julia is obviously going to move forward when her own “trial” has ended. Daniel? Well, no, probably not. Early in the film, Daniel’s “Judgement City” (the Purgatory-like enclave where most of the film takes place) defense attorney Bob Diamond — an extraordinary Rip Torn — explains that most humans spend their lives acting out of fear, and that those who are chosen to move on are the ones who exhibit bravery that, by definition, isn’t attainable for most people. Daniel isn’t that kind of person, but Julia is.
But perhaps not for the reasons most of the audience might expect. While Julia is clearly a wonderful person — Streep has rarely been so effervescent on the big screen, and dead Julia has more of a zest for “life” than most living creatures — “Defending Your Life” uses the details of her earthly existence as a clever conduit to explain what it really means to live beyond fear. After enduring (another) terrible day quite literally defending his life and the choices he made during it, most of it delivered via an uproarious montage of events that shows just how often Daniel’s sense of self-preservation (not taking even mild risks, making uneducated choices, never pushing himself beyond his comfort zone) got in the way of actually bettering his life, Daniel steps into Julia’s “courtroom.”
Brooks enters the room just as a Judgement City-styled video (imagine as if every moment of your life was shot like a mid-budget studio film, and then shown to the people tasked with deciding the next step in your fate) shows off a highlight of Julia’s life: that time she saved her children and her cat from a raging house fire. “Going back for the cat is wonderful,” the actor playing Judgment City’s version of a prosecutor says in starry-eyed wonder. Everyone is (understandably) in awe of Julia, especially Daniel, torn between celebrating the wonder that is his new love interest and feeling like absolute crap that he never did anything so brave with his 39 years on Earth.
The key, however, is that Julia’s act — as brave and special as it was — was not some altruistic endeavor. She was saving her own children, her own fluffy cat, her own world, but that’s remarkable enough to be shown during a trial that will determine the next stage of her existence. In short, Julia knows how to take care of herself and the things that matter to her, and that’s the first step to enlightenment. On the surface, it’s not the loftiest of goals — doing good things for yourself, how is that noble? — but Brooks’ film makes a smart argument for why it’s so hard for people to fight for themselves.
It’s certainly hard for Daniel, whose many missteps include everything from being unable to ask for a better salary when sewing up a new job to very nearly dying because he never learned proper snowmobile safety techniques. In the videos of his life, it’s plain that Daniel thinks he’s doing, if not the right thing, at least the easy thing, though it’s those exact choices that keep his life (and now, his afterlife!) from moving forward in a positive way. The film, which also functions as one heck of a charming romantic comedy, is happy to put that into purely genre-leaning practice, with Daniel eventually working up the courage to do something big! and crazy! and scary! and most definitely better than pretty much everything he did on Earth during the film’s winning final sequences.
While a soaring, whimsical score from Michael Gore (plus a classic twist on the ol’ “running to catch your love before they get on a plane/bus/train”) makes the final scenes of “Defending Your Life” feel as stirring as any big screen romance, the film’s real power is that none of its joys are meant simply for entertainment’s sake. The ideas that “Defending Your Life” presents go beyond cinematic exercise, and are things can be put into practice right now, in real life, in this very existence.
Those who are ready for the next stage of whatever comes next don’t need to overcome fear and pain and self-doubt to do extraordinary things (or to fall in love with Meryl Streep or pal around with Rip Torn), they just need to be willing to do something good for themselves. What’s next? Anything, everything.
“Defending Your Life” is now streaming on HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and YouTube.