Leave it to Albert Brooks to make dying both stressful and funny. In this brilliantly inventive comic fantasy, the writer-director plays Daniel Miller, a divorced L.A. advertising executive. Driving his BMW convertible while singing along to a CD of Barbra Streisand show tunes ("I got a feeling there's a miracle due, gonna come true, coming to me"), Daniel collides fatally with a bus making mincemeat of himself and Babs's blaring optimism.
Next stop for Daniel is Judgment City, where the freshly dead all wear caftans called "tupas" and ride trams between antiseptic hotels, tacky restaurants, amateur comedy clubs and such tourist attractions as the Pavilion of Past Lives. In this Disneyland for the dead, everyone is resolutely cheerful, and the weather is always seventy-four degrees and perfectly clear. It's Brooks's vision of hell.
But Judgment City isn't hell; it's merely a pit stop where the dead go for a few days to defend their lives in court. Defense lawyer Bob Diamond (Rip Torn is a sassy wonder in the role) tells Daniel he'll be judged on how well he's faced down his fears in life. If Daniel pleases the court, he'll move on as a citizen of the universe; if he doesn't, he'll be sent back to earth. Daniel has already had twenty lifetimes (you remember only the last one) and hasn't learned much; he's still using only three percent of his brain. "When you use more than five percent," says Diamond (who's been clocked at forty-eight percent), "you don't want to be on earth, believe me."
Daniel may be the ultimate Brooks role. In his own work (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America) and even when he acts in other films (Taxi Driver, Private Benjamin and, most notably, Broadcast News), the prototypal Brooks character makes anxiety a way of life. Brooks may look as ordinary as a baked potato, but he's honed his deadpan style into a lively and expressive comic instrument. Brooks is a clown with a black cloud over his head. You can't see it, but it's there. He's always anticipating the worst.
In Defending Your Life, he gets it. Not only is Daniel dead, he has to face public humiliation, which he sees as a worse fate. Prosecutor Lena Foster (a nail-tough Lee Grant) is out to expose Daniel as the tangled mass of insecurities he is. To help the judges decide, selected film clips from Daniel's life are shown in court. It's dirty pool to reveal the substance of the clips, including a compilation reel of 164 of Daniel's stupider misjudgments, but there are few sights more riotous than watching him squirm through each of them.
On the bright side, Daniel strikes up a romance with Julia (Meryl Streep), a high-spirited though deceased mother of two who is also awaiting judgment. Except for sharing Daniel's skewed sense of humor, Julia is everything he is not: secure, well adjusted, heroic. It's not a huge role, and Streep wisely doesn't try to stretch it. Instead, she gives the part a relaxed reading that makes her crack timing even more impressive. And her romantic sparring with Brooks has a piercing sweetness. "When I see you," Daniel tells Julia, "I instantly feel okay."
But not for long. Daniel starts noticing that Julia has a better hotel room than he (they put cream-filled chocolate swans on her pillow at night while he gets a box of cheap mints). Julia's film clips are also a shock to Daniel – she's Joan of Arc to his Cowardly Lion. When she invites him to her bed, Daniel resists. He's afraid.
Here's that rare movie find: a comedy of mind, heart and a merry sense of malice. Brooks doesn't offer the comfy escapism of a dream world. There are no gods or devils in his hereafter, just the usual banal bureaucrats, petty fears and relationships that are a bitch to sustain. Shot in long takes with a sparing use of close-ups, the film may dull those accustomed to sitcom laugh tracks and pumped-up gags. Allen Daviau's muted cinematography and David Finfer's editing are never intrusive. Brooks wants laughs but not at the expense of character or nuance. Forget the mood-shattering feel-good ending; Brooks slouches toward it as if he knew it was bogus. Until then, Defending Your Life makes a solid case for Albert Brooks as an inspired filmmaker and an incomparable clown.