Movie of the Week: ‘Defending Your Life’

“Defending Your Life” (1991) – Albert Brooks directs, writes, and stars in his surreal, thoughtful comedy, where he plays Daniel Miller, a man defending his life!

Unfortunately, Dan’s life is cut short by an auto accident, and he ends up in Judgment City, a type of purgatory that looks like suburban Pasadena.  He’s on trial, although it’s not really called one, where his defender, a prosecutor, and two judges review nine days in Daniel’s time on Earth, which are like snippets from VCR recordings that are made by who knows who.

Arthur (Rip Torn)

The hope is that Dan moves on to the next step, which isn’t heaven, but it isn’t Earth either.  If the judges rule against him, he goes back to our bouncing blue ball called home to try it all again. 

The universe will reincarnate our hero.

Brooks has the ole sad-sack routine down as we watch Daniel fall short on the courtroom’s screen and in real-time in Judgment City.  This is Brooks’ movie, so he’s the lead and fills Dan with dry humor, but Rip Torn and Meryl Streep – two extremely key supporting players – steal every scene, with Albert’s help, of course, because he wrote the screenplay.

Julia (Meryl Streep)

Essentially, Rip is a gentler version of his Arthur from the coveted “The Larry Sanders Show” by playing Dan’s lawyer, a staunch defender through thick, thin, and embarrassing videos from the man’s lifetime.

Meanwhile, Meryl is Julia, a person also endorsing her time on Earth, and through enjoyable conversations with Dan, they soon become each other’s love interests.

Look, if one directs, writes, and stars in their own film, cast Meryl Streep as your love interest.  Streep has never been more accessible in “Defending Your Life” (1991) after starring in so many troubling dramas like “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), and “Sophie’s Choice” (1982).  Note, this regal actress won Oscars for the latter two films.

Arthur (Torn), Daniel (Albert Brooks), and Lena (Lee Grant)

Brooks’ agreeable comedy also offers authentic chances for self-reflection, so perhaps when that time comes, we won’t have to defend our lives hard as Daniel.   One can hope!

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed and written by: Albert Brooks

Starring: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, and Rip Torn

Rated: PG

Runtime: 112 minutes

Image credits: Warner Brothers

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