‘Defending Your Life’ at 25: Albert Brooks on Making a Comedy Classic
If heaven exists, what would it look like?
It’s one of life’s big questions, and if you believe what you see in the movies, it’s a place full of white fluffy clouds and friendly angels pining for their life back on our Big Blue Marble. But that’s not how Albert Brooks sees it.
Twenty-five years ago — and less than a year after Ghost stormed the box office — Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in Defending Your Life, the story of an ad man who buys himself a Bimmer for his 40th birthday, then promptly drives it into a bus. The bulk of the movie happens in a place called Judgment City, a pleasant enough pit stop for the dearly departed that operates a lot like a Fortune 500 company.
Judgment City’s purpose is defined in its name: It’s here that the recently deceased come to find out whether they’ll be advancing to heaven, or heading to hell (which is essentially going back to Earth, as a person, to make another go at that heaven thing). To determine that, individuals are assigned a “defender” (a lawyer, though they don’t like to use that word) to help make a case for moving forward. Like any trial, there’s also a prosecutor to make a case for the opposite. Helping both sides to make their respective arguments is video footage of the defendant’s entire life, organized by precise age, which sounds much less painful than it really is. (“Who could survive it?,” asks Brooks.)
It was a modest hit upon its release in 1991, but in the quarter-century since its debut, Defending Your Life has become a beloved cult-comedy classic, continually drawing in new audiences. Though it’s grounded in comedy, Brooks’ exploration of life after death has also proven to resonate on a spiritual level, especially with younger viewers who are just beginning to question what happens after “the end.”
On the 25th anniversary of Defending Your Life‘s release, Rolling Stone asked the director to take us back to Judgment City and explore his own reasons for why the film has remained so relevant to today’s audiences.