Defending Your Life (1991)


Average Joe Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) is one day hit by a bus. He wakes up at an existential way station, the comfortable Judgment City, where his life is going to be reviewed so that it can be determined whether he has evolved far enough to go to the next level of existence, or whether he is to be sent back to Earth for another lifetime – another chance to get it right.

Daniel is fairly intelligent, on the one hand understanding that he hadn’t made much of his life, but on the other hand being defensive about having been required to. He perhaps thinks a bit too highly of himself, so it’s something of a shock when he is told that he only uses 3% of his brain. The Judgment City staff uses around 50% of theirs. Daniel learns that human consciousnesses travel from certain planes of existence to others, in the process acquiring the ability to use their brains ever more efficiently. Almost everybody on Earth only use 3% of their brains. If they use more, they are advanced to the next plane of existence. But if they are underachievers without sufficient drive, ambition, altruism and a capacity for love, they are sent back to Earth to start over.

As his case is being reviewed, Daniel wanders about Judgment City, interacting with others in the same situation (mostly elderly people who died of age-related causes). Here he meets the somewhat angelic Julia (Meryl Streep), and they pretty much instantly fall in love. The rest, well, that would be telling.

The movie is a comedy, and while it is low-key and slow-moving at times, it also has moments of raucous fun. A lot of the comedy lies in Daniel’s indignation and outrage at how poorly the others think he has fared in his earthly life, and how others (incl. Julia) seem to be treated better than him (in better accommodations, etc.). He likes to think he’s a good as anybody else, so it’s something of a harsh reality-check for him to be constantly confronted with people who’re clearly far superior to him. As such it actually reads much like an early Woody Allen comedy. “But I’m so smart! How can I possibly be a moron!? What’s going on here?! This can’t be right!“

Meryl Streep, as she always is, is fabulous in this role. Cheerful and natural almost to the point of the childlike. Albert Brooks is also good.

For some reason I just like this movie. I first saw it on TV in the mid-‘90s, always remembered it, and got the DVD a few years ago. My disc is the Region 1 release (the only one available, to my knowledge). It’s got the essentials (trailers, subtitles), but nothing else of note.

Director: Albert Brooks
Cast: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn
Runtime: 111 min.
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

DVD Rating: ★★★☆☆

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