In Albert Brooks’ comedies, his usual persona is that of a schnook who is so obsessed with being hip that he doesn’t realize how obnoxious he is (such as the Brooks yuppie who wanted to “touch Indians” in Lost in America ). But his other movies made fun of these obsessions; Defending Your Life takes them seriously and tries to explore them. Consequently, though it’s officially a comedy, it’s more thoughtful than hysterical.
Brooks plays David Miller, a meek advertising executive who dies in a traffic accident. David finds that, before he can move on to the next level of afterlife, his otherworldly lawyer must be able to prove that David lived his life on Earth to the fullest. If he loses his case, David will be sent back to Earth to try again.
One night, David meets Julia (Meryl Streep), whose case is also being tried, and he falls in love with her. But as always, David is afraid of expressing his true feelings. Will he overcome his self-doubt? Based on his previous life, the evidence isn’t good.
The movie is pretty enjoyable throughout, but the all-out funniest parts are in the first half, as David tries to cope with both the nonchalant blandness of the afterlife and a trial that recounts his most humiliating earthly moments. The romance between Julia and David is not unwelcome either. Meryl Streep is quite charming, and her love scenes with Brooks are surprisingly believable and touching.
But the movie builds up a lot of momentum and goodwill for a huge resolution that never arrives. The whole point of the movie seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of life” — not Brooks’s most profound statement ever. He seems content to make this film his Heaven Can Wait, complete with a tacked-on happy ending and celestial photography (provided by Allen Daviau, who also did Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial).
As in Lost in America, Brooks’ other actors constitute a rich supporting cast. Lee Grant is terrific as David’s prosecutor, and Rip Torn displays just the right degree of pomposity as David’s condescending lawyer. There are also a lot of neat cameos, such as that of the emcee of The Past Lives Pavilion; I won’t give away the surprise, but when you think about it later, she turns out to be perfectly appropriate.
Defending Your Life is not a bad movie, but coming from Brooks, it’s amazingly benign. If you liked Brooks’s hapless newscaster in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987), you’ll probably love this one. But it’s surprising that one of America’s most incisive satirists is content to settle for middle-of-the-road sweetness.