Albert Brooks has carved out such an odd little niche in American comedy cinema: he always plays some variation on the self-obsessed neurotic character that he created in his early stand-up routine. His films are never hugely successful, but they are generally critical favourites. He was often compared to Woody Allen, especially in the ’80s—and sure, they are both Jewish comics who portray neurotic characters. But Brooks is very west coast, while Allen IS New York to so many people. Brooks also always brings a slightly unhinged quality, bordering on the psychotic, to everything he does, which is why Nicolas Winding Refn brilliantly cast him as a Jewish mobster in Drive.
Defending Your Life is probably Brooks’ last great film as a director. Unlike Allen, his directorial output has been films that are few and far between, which might account for a certain consistency…. often, less is more. A mediocre Brooks film like The Muse is typically a much better film than a mildly entertaining Allen film. Defending Your Life is also a existentialist high-concept dramedy, something Allen has also done a few times, but it is unique because of just how well Brooks has mapped out the world it creates. This is something Allen is incapable of doing, because he often just goes for the gag or the funny one-liner.
Brooks plays Los Angeles advertising executive Daniel Miller, who dies in a car accident on his 39th birthday. He is ends up in Judgment City, which is basically Purgatory. One of the film’s inspired notions is that when you are in Judgment City, you can eat whatever you want without gaining a single pound. The afterlife depicted is much like Earth, and it’s possible to do most of the same activities you have on Earth while you wait to get a tribunal to “defend your life” that includes videos of your “life.” Some people live in better hotels, so there is even in a hierarchy in the afterlife!
Brooks brilliantly world-builds the afterlife, and it raises some quite profound theological questions. Meryl Streep plays Julia, a woman Daniel falls in love with while he is waiting to find out whether he moves on or is sent back to Earth, presumedly in a new life… past lives also exist in this world.
The film is more allegorical and dramatic than Lost in America or Modern Romance, which are just pure laugh-riots. It’s still funny, but not as consistently as his previous films, Lost in America, which was his preceding directorial effort, is one of the most consistently funny films I’ve ever seen. Rip Torn plays Daniel’s lawyer, and this was pre-The Larry Sanders Show, before everybody knew he was really funny. Buck Henry has a small role as a substitute lawyer for Daniel, which is a bit of a nod to Heaven Can Wait, a similar film that Henry co-directed and co-starred in with Warren Beatty. Streep, who I’m generally a little lukewarm on, gives one of her most charming and best performances.
Defending Your Life is a very strong film from Brooks, but I would suggest seeing Lost in America first and then seeing how your fare—it’s also out this week in the UK from Criterion. If you have lost someone or are about to lose someone, I actually think Defending Your Life might weaken the blow, even if you’re a non-believer, which says a lot about the strengths of the film.
The disc from Criterion includes a conversation recorded remotely with Brooks and Robert Weide, aninterview with theologian and critic Donna Bowman, and a newly edited programme consisting of interviews with Brooks and actors Lee Grant and Rip Torn, which was recorded in 1991. The image quality of the new interviews, which I think were partially recorded on Zoom with a camera in each location, sets a gold standard for this ongoing solution to making extras during the Covid-19 pandemic (Arrow did it well too,though, with their Southland Tales documentary.) The trailer finishes off the on-disc extras, and the booklet includes an essay from Ari Aster, director of Hereditary and Midsommar.