Thursday, October 27, 2016

Defending Your Life

Albert Brooks is one of the great comedy talents. Though many people today might know him best for his starring role as panicked father Marlin in Finding Nemo, he was never better than when he took complete control of his work in the Woody Allen vein of writing, directing, and starring in his own movies. He did this to great critical and commercial success with 1981's Modern Romance and 1985's Lost in America, along with his great supporting acting work in movies like Taxi Driver, Broadcast News, and just a few years ago in Drive. His work is a bit more specific than other writers, and so he was never destined to play to as big of audiences as he deserved. Still, his writing is layered with jokes big and small, rewarding re-watches of his work. Sadly, he's only given us seven feature films, but his masterpiece is most definitely 1991's Defending Your Life.

Brooks plays Daniel Miller, who dies in a car wreck. That's not a spoiler, it's the opening of the movie. Daniel gets sent to Judgment City, where he enters a kind of trial, though they don't like to call it that. In that trial, he must defend the actions he took in his life. It's not about making good or bad decisions so much as it is whether he let himself be ruled by fear or desire. If too much fear, then he gets sent back to Earth to try life over again. If the judges deem him worthy, he gets to “move onward.”

He's told by his defender, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), that they'll be looking at nine days from Daniel's life. “Nine, is that a lot?” he asks. “It's not a lot or a little,” he's told, it just is. But to a neurotic guy like Daniel, nine sure sounds like a lot. He only meets one other person in Judgment City who's defending more, a pornographer who proudly claims to have coined the phrase “all nude girls,” and who is defending 15 days of his life. By chance, Daniel meets Julia (Meryl Streep), and they have an instant and powerfully romantic connection. Julia is only defending four days of her life, which makes Daniel worry that she'll move onward and he won't. When Daniel sneaks into her trial one day, he sees things like her saving her family from their burning house and her prosecuting attorney crying and saying "I just wanted to see that again" after Brooks' prosecutor (Lee Grant) has been relentless in saying he doesn't deserve to move on.

We've seen many stories that deal with what a possible afterlife might be like (including Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait, whose co-director Buck Henry makes a cameo appearance here), but I think Brooks' take is the most interesting. We're told there's no heaven or hell, a person either moves onward or they are sent back to Earth to give life another try. Daniel's told he's lived on Earth 20 times, which again seems like a lot to him. Bob Diamond tries to comfort him by saying “there are people who've lived life 100 times on Earth…. Now, you wouldn't want to hang out with any of them, but it happens.” There are fascinating pieces to Judgment City, including different hotels (Daniel's is a pretty basic one, while Julia's is an opulent Four Seasons or Hilton type), restaurants, and even the Past Lives Pavilion, where you can see up to five of your previous lives. Julia is fascinated to know she was Prince Valiant in a previous life, while Daniel has just seen himself as an African native running from a lion. When Julia asks who he'd been in his previous life, Daniel responds “dinner.”

Defending Your Life turned 25 years old just a few weeks ago, and it's remarkable how little it has become dated. Because Brooks' ideas are big and weighty, but he let the story be driven by emotion and reflection of one's life (things that will never grow old), and his writing is so sharp, the movie plays in 2016 much the same it would've played in 1991. There are terrific jokes in the movie, like when Daniel and Julia meet at a comedy club in Judgment City where a horrible comic is struggling with the audience, the comic asks Daniel “How'd you die?” “On stage, like you.” Or maybe my favorite exchange in the movie is a conversation between Daniel and Bob Diamond. Bob has made a previous point of telling Daniel he uses 48 percent of his brain, whereas Daniel only uses 3 percent. When Bob misses a day of the trial, Daniel wants to know why.

Daniel: Where were you? I'm just curious.
Bob: I'd tell you, but you wouldn't understand.
Daniel: Don't treat me like a moron. Try me.
Bob: I was trapped near the inner circle of thought.
Daniel: I don't understand.
Bob: I told you...

Rip Torn is just dynamite in that role. He brings a certain indefinable, unhinged something to that part that makes you really believe he's this guy who has long since moved on from his life on Earth. Brooks, too, is tremendous in his typical intellectual, neurotic guy character that is similar in a way to Woody Allen's, but there seems something much more adult about Brooks, more mature in his character. He plays up the angst and nerves that are wrecking Daniel's life by keeping him from his desire. And Brooks the filmmaker is on top of his game with confronting this idea that, as Bob puts it, “Well, everybody on Earth deals with fear - that's what little brains do. Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything - real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can't get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you're in for the ride of your life.”

Special mention has to go to Meryl Streep's performance. This was the first time we'd ever seen her be an engaging, regular person on screen. She'd always played any number of difficult and challenging roles, but from all accounts is a lovely, warm, friendly person, and that's who she plays here. She radiates comfort and lovability, and has a magical chemistry with Brooks because of it. The movie doesn't take off if the surprise love story doesn't work, but that's not a problem here. It's obvious why he's drawn to her, because we are too. She's funny and charming, and more than a little sexy. Although they're only together a few days, we don't doubt for a moment that there's obviously some bigger force of love happening between these two. It's really what helps take the movie from great to transcendent.

Defending Your Life has gained a small but passionate following over the last 25 years, but it is still firmly a Hidden Gem. It has ideas and jokes both big and small, beautiful romance, incredible after-life world building, and is just a tremendously enjoyable and thought-provoking time at the movies. What more could you want?

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