Okay, I know it seems depressing to be thinking about death at the start of the new year. But trust me, Defending Your Life is not a depressing film. Defending Your Life is a film about moving forward by taking the risks necessary to do so.
The film is written and directed by Albert Brooks, who also co-stars along with Meryl Streep. The film hoovers in the genres of sci-fi/fantasy and romantic comedy. The premise of the film is that there is a processing center people go to after death where it is determined whether they get to move forward in their development or whether they have to go back to earth to keep trying to overcome all their shortcomings. There is a life review which is very much like a trial with two counselors and two presiding judges, played by Lillian Lehman and George Wallace.
The protagonist, Daniel Miller a kind of average Joe nebbish, played by Brooks, has just died on his birthday in an accident with a bus while singing a Streisand tune. It's hard to imagine a more humiliating or wasteful death. Let this be a warning to those of us who mess with distractions while we're driving. Happily, we are spared the blood and guts of the scene when the movie cuts to judgment city bustling with newly dead arrivals being pushed along in wheelchairs. Judgment City looks a bit like Disneyland. Everything is clean and efficient. All the dead are placid, even downright cheerful. The residents who run Judgement City dress neatly in plain clothing while the dead wear caftans called tupas. But the best thing about Judgment city is that the dead can eat all they want and have no physical effect. Everything is fast and delicious too.
Brooks is very engaging as Daniel, who uses humor to deal with whatever situation life and death throw at him. He shows himself to be a kind person by listening to an older woman reminiscing about her dog. Daniel's counsel, played by Rip Torn, doesn't appear to be a tremendous help in Daniel's defense despite his big brain status using 48% of his capacity as compared to the 3-5% humans use. And his "prosecutor" played by Lee Grant, is apparently one of the toughest. As the case progresses, we are shown snippets from Daniel's life as evidence of whether he should or shouldn't move forward. The evidence the prosecutor put forward is Daniel's fear and misjudgements. Most of the life-review footage only serves to make Daniel much more sympathetic to us. His failings are our own.
There is some food for thought in the trial, but the true charm of the film is the developing relationship between Daniel and Julia. Julia, played by Steep, and Daniel meet in a comedy club where Daniel is much funnier than the comic on stage. Streep is breezy and light in the role. There's a humorous restaurant scene with her sucking up spaghetti not quite Lady and the Tramp.
This is a film to watch for smiles and enjoyment. It's hopeful in that it professes there is more than this one life, more to experience and understand. The plot demonstrates that it is never too late to grow and improve. I also love this film for the way it suggests one take a more gentle look at oneself.