Re(focused)views: Defending Your Life (1991)

by Brian Eggert

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Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, Ethan Embry, and Shirley MacLaine


112 min.

Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life contains one of the most intricately detailed and affectionately realized worlds ever put to the screen in a high-concept comedy. It’s a story about an afterlife not of puffy clouds and angels strumming golden harps, nor of a fire and brimstone netherworld ruled by a horned beast, but of writer-director Brooks’ imagination. Though heavenly, it does not take place in Heaven. The film posits a forward-thinking view of the universe where knowledge and self-improvement are valued above all else. Those who fail to make the most of their lives on Earth are not damned to Hell; rather, they are allowed to try again through reincarnation until they get it right (well, there are limitations). In Brooks’ concept, life on Earth is about “dealing with fear,” and before we pass onto whatever comes next, a person must receive a kind of courthouse ruling that determines whether or not they have lived a full and intrepid life. It’s the type of comic situation that Brooks, in his standard yuppie kvetcher role, seems to delight in playing, and he’s never played it better.  

The very concept of Defending Your Life is pure Brooks. His films so often deal with his characters’ depressive insecurities and cynicism. That he finds humor in his protagonists’ misfortunes—in this case, their death—is what makes him a genius comedian. But this 1991 release has the added pleasure of a pitch-perfect romantic ending... Read the full article


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