Monday 9 November 2020

Movie Review: Defending Your Life (1991)

A fantasy romance, comedy and drama, Defending Your Life offers a few original after-life ideas but fails to properly exploit the premise.

Los Angeles-based marketing executive Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) dies in a car crash on his 39th birthday. He is transported to the idyllic campus setting of Judgment City where his life's actions will be evaluated to determine if he deserves to progress or be sent back for another round on Earth. He meets his lawyer Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) and prosecutor Lena Foster (Lee Grant), and learns that nine days of his life will be used as evidence to judge his maturity as measured by acting without fear.

As his case is progressing Daniel meets Julia (Meryl Streep), recently deceased by accidental drowning. They enjoy the perks of Judgment City together, including unlimited food with no weight gain, and quickly fall in love. But it is soon clear Julia has lived impeccably and will be progressing, while Daniel still has a lot to learn about living life to the fullest and will likely be consigned back to the drudgery of another terrestrial life.

Finding an interesting seam between religious dogma and existentialism, Defending Your Life creates a secular afterlife governed by the universe, offering progress towards the joys of larger brain utilization for promising candidates. The only punishment for underachievement is a do-over, and Daniel Miller learns he is, in fact, on his 20th go-round, and still has work to do.

But having gone to the trouble of creating an intriguing premise, writer and director Brooks undersells the concept and tacks on a very earth-like rom-com with all the associated cringiness. Life's accomplishments are reduced to the simplistic objective of acting without fear, and neither prosecutor Foster nor defendor Diamond appear convinced. The film's key hinge scenes, replaying and evaluating Daniel's critical days, are reduced to routine bland vignettes ultimately suggesting little of consequence.

The romance between Daniel and Julia is hustled along at celestial speed from initial meeting to expressions of deep love, the attraction between them based on little more than Meryl Streep's whimsical etheralism. To endear himself Daniel unleashes a stream of corny dialogue that by itself should rush-deliver him back to Earth for swift punishment. Julia is never provided a reason to fall in love, while Brooks skips over any explanations about the rules of post-death romance.

A steady current of mild humour is maintained, mostly drawn from secondary characters and the absurdities of the surroundings. But Brooks as an actor sleepwalks through the film with apathetic bemusement, and Streep delivers one of her least impactful roles, Julia drawn as an elusive ideal rather than a person.

Defending Your Life is tantalizingly close to being good, but surrenders to meek resolutions.

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