Daniel Miller was tooling along a Los Angeles street, listening to Something’s Coming when something came – a bus. One head-on crash later, Daniel wakes up deceased. And his troubles are just beginning.
Double Academy Award® winner Meryl Streep joins writer/director/star Albert Brooks (The Muse, Lost in America, Mother) for a witty peek at the afterlife, where you can eat all you want and not gain an ounce. But there’s a catch: you’re saddled with Defending Your Life. If you can’t make a case for having lived a full and fearless one, you must go back to Earth and try again. Daniel’s life was far from fearless. But after he meets the remarkable Julia (Streep), he’s determined not to go back. Yes, there is a laugh after death!
“Over the course of the following four days, I will attempt to show that Daniel Miller, while he’s a quality human being, is still held back by the fears that plague him lifetime after lifetime. I believe that I can show, without a shadow of a doubt, that he must once again be returned to Earth to work on his problem.”
What if you had to defend your life based on a few key moments that defined it? What if the purpose of the proceedings is deciding whether or not you have been acting out of fear, not for your or anyone else’s best interest? And what if this decided whether you could be trusted the universe’s best interests?
That is the basic premise behind Albert Brooks’ existential romantic dramedy.
I was surprised with my rather positive reaction to ‘Defending Your Life’ upon this second viewing, because I had found it only passable the first time around. Has it grown on me? Have I grown since I saw it? Or was I simply in the right mood for it? Either way, I enjoyed pretty much all of this film.
Our story begins with our protagonist, Daniel Miller, driving around in the new car he just picked up and dying in a head-on collision with a bus. On his birthday, no less. He regains sluggish consciousness (in a scene somewhat reminiscent of the opening of ‘Sleeper’) in Judgment City, a stopover area in the afterlife where souls go through triage to the next level or back to earth.
Daniel Miller: “Is this Heaven?”
Bob Diamond: “No, it isn’t Heaven.”
Daniel Miller: “Is it Hell?”
Bob Diamond: “Nope, it isn’t Hell either. Actually, there is no Hell. Although I hear Los Angeles is getting pretty close.”
The next level is never shown to us, but we are told that people who pass on to the next level use a substantially larger part of their brain capacity than human beings (or “little brains”, as they are called amongst the enlightened) do: their capacity rises from 3-5% to approximately 50%, give or take a few billion neurons. This greater intelligence comes at a price, however: frequent condescending remarks to ‘little brains’, such as “you wouldn’t understand”.
Daniel Miller: “Where were you? I’m just curious.”
Bob Diamond: “I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t understand.”
Daniel Miller: “Don’t treat me like a moron. Try me.”
Bob Diamond: “I was trapped near the inner circle of fault.”
Daniel Miller: “I don’t understand.”
Bob Diamond: “I told you…”
Strangely, their intelligence isn’t always that self-evident. In fact, Miller’s defender, Bob Diamond, is likely the worst of the lot, coming up with the worst examples and arguments to defend his client. He likes to boast a brain capacity of 48%, but I surmise that I’ve seen smarter, sharper ‘little brains’ in action. And, trust me: I’m most definitely a ‘little brain’ – so I should know. Heck, even I could do better than this guy. Or I’d like to think so, anyway.
Still, he resumes the basic existentialist principles of ‘Defending Your Life’ very well:
Bob Diamond: “Being from Earth, as you are, and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.”
Daniel Miller: “It has?”
Bob Diamond: “Well everybody on Earth deals with fear – that’s what little brains do. Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything – real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can’t get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you’re in for the ride of your life.”
Daniel Miller: “God… my three percent is swimming.”
Rip Torn did a great job of playing Diamond. He turned him into a haughty, somewhat sleazy, character that one would have a difficult time entrusting full confidence in. Miller does anyway because he has no other recourse, but his nervousness is justified. I couldn’t help but feel that Diamond would have been perfect for Billy Crystal’s particular delivery, and he would have made for a fine addition to this cast. However, he wouldn’t have had the ruggedness that Torn brought to the part.
Diamond’s counterpoint, Lena Foster, is charged with proving that Miller is not fit to move to the next level, that he has failed time and again at overcoming his fears. She is played adeptly by Lee Grant, who imbued her with a no-nonsense attitude and professionalism that suggested competence. I hate to have to say this, but, unfortunately, I was extremely distracted by Lee Grant’s face; it looked to me as though she’s had one too many visits at the plastic surgeon and it was… um.. creepy. It didn’t detract from her performance, but… it kept my mind off track.
Meanwhile, Meryl Streep was in that mode of hers that annoys me – the one that leaves me cold about her even though I know that she’s a tremendous actress, and even though I have enjoyed many of her performances in the past. In ‘Defending Your Life’, she appears kind of flaky or new age-y for whatever reason, as though she had a drink too many of the Shirley MacLaine Kool-Aid. It makes me want to shake that distracted bubbleheadedness out of her. And every time she smiles, it looks like her head will crack – as though it’s painful or an alien behaviour. So weird.
Albert Brooks is quite good, though. He plays straight much of time, as he tends to do, but makes observations that are amusing or poses thought-provoking questions in our place. There was a quality to him in this picture that was also peculiar, however, and it’s that he consistently looked like a beat-up puppy dog; sadness is etched in his face almost all the time. I don’t know if this was intentional or if it’s just that life’s had a dramatic impact on Brooks, but I couldn’t help but wonder about this. It didn’t make him less funny, mind you, but it did divert my attention slightly.
As is typical of Brooks’ films, it’s all in the dialogue (and the delivery, obviously – but the script is the key thing). It is no different in ‘Defending Your Life’, except that there are some inspired moments that would be difficult to replicate on the stage, such as the Past Lives Pavilion segment, wherein souls can go see which lives they had inhabited in previous incarnations. There are also some situational humour, such being able to eat all that they want because they don’t inhabit bodies:
Julia: “The best hot dogs in Judgement City are supposed to be over by the Hall of Records.”
Daniel Miller: “You really love this eating thing, don’t you?”
Julia: “To be able to eat as much as you want, never gain an ounce and feel great. Please.”
Strangely enough, despite being freed from the confines of their mortal coils, all of them need sleep (um… really? why? ). Discrepant as this is, however, it wasn’t a deterrent to my enjoyment of the film; it could be casually ignored seeing as nothing in the film hinged on this detail.
Another problem is the proceedings themselves, wherein we revisit Miller’s life in short clips. These clips aren’t all that engaging. I actually liked them this time around, but I recall finding them lacklustre when I first saw it – something which was echoed by a friend I watched it with (he was seeing it for the first time, so perhaps that’s a natural initial impression).
Having said this, the key -and only- downer in ‘Defending Your Life’ was the Hollywood ending. It’s not as bad as they come, and it avoided some of the expected clichés, but this picture deserved better – it’s as if the ending was tacked on, as though someone decided that it wouldn’t do to have a more realistic ending.
If anything, ‘Defending Your Life’ should have left us with something to think about. It should have been touching and thought-provoking at once. To leave us with ill-conceived romantic vacuity deflated its potential as post-viewing discussion fodder. Where a film like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ makes you wonder what you would do given similar circumstances, implanting the question “What if?” in one’s head, ‘Defending Your Life’ inspires only a tepid “That’s it?”.
*My alternate ending*
*My alternate ending*
Still, all reservations aside, I quite like where ‘Defending Your Life’ was going. I have tried to get beyond my deepest fears myself, instead of being ruled by them, and I wonder if I would pass the test, if my failures would pale in comparison to my successes. I think that ‘Defending Your Life’ brings such thoughts to the fore with enough humour to lighten the load, but with plenty to challenge our little brains.