As a self-assured, obnoxious Foote, Cone, and Belding executive, Albert Brooks recasts his egocentric, but lovable, yuppie advertising genius from LOST IN AMERICA and leads him to an otherwordly domain which forces him to reevaluate his grasping values and his shallow soul. Unfortunately, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE suffers from a slushy-headed pop fever. After...read more
As a self-assured, obnoxious Foote, Cone, and Belding executive, Albert Brooks recasts his egocentric, but lovable, yuppie advertising genius from LOST IN AMERICA and leads him to an otherwordly domain which forces him to reevaluate his grasping values and his shallow soul.
Unfortunately, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE suffers from a slushy-headed pop fever.
After plowing his new BMW into a bus, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) finds himself in a stupified state, being wheeled along a wide corridor, one among many wheelchairs, containing mostly elderly men and women. Daniel is helped aboard a tram with the other wheelchair-bound men and women, leading
the passengers to Judgment City, a post-death Disney World where the recently deceased, while awaiting judgment on their lives, can enjoy nightclubs, golf and delicious gourmet meals. As Daniel begins to come to his senses inside an after-death Ramada Inn, he meets his defender, Bob Diamond (Rip
Torn), who explains to Daniel that he must undergo a trial in which moments of his life are reviewed like clips on a movie review program to determine whether fear had held him back from growing into a higher consciousness. If he loses the case and fear has been found to dominate his life, Daniel
must return to earth and start again.
While Daniel reviews painful and unpleasant moments of his life, he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), whose life is a series of heroic encounters and is a cinch to move on to a higher life form. Daniel and Julia fall in love and Julia offers to share her bed with him. But, although Daniel is attracted
to her, he declines, explaining, "I don't want to be judged anymore." Daniel is then told by Bob that he has lost the case and must return to earth. As he is led to the bus that will return him to earth, he sees Julia in another bus bound, literally, for heaven-knows-where. In love and desperate
not to lose her, Daniel overcomes an electrified force field surrounding his bus and races across the tarmac to her bus, clinging outside her window and telling her that he loves her. Observing this scene are Daniel's judges, who determine that by the incident Daniel has overcome his fears and he
is permitted to travel on with Julia to a new life and a new life form.
In Albert Brooks's earlier efforts as director-writer-star, including REAL LIFE and MODERN ROMANCE, his satirical barbs were always cutting and pointed. But in DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, the satire has turned into day-old porridge and the man/woman relationship has all the sexual politics of a Steven
Speilberg action hoedown.
Instead of his low-key originality, Brooks has hopped aboard the bandwagon of the recently revived death-fantasy genre (GHOST, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, ALWAYS, HELLO AGAIN, VIBES etc.) in the hope, perhaps, of having a popular commercial hit. While other films of the genre depict a ghostly spirit
returning to earth to help his/her loved ones with their problems, it is interesting that DEFENDING YOUR LIFE rejects earth as completely unworthy of returning to for any reason (earthlings are disparagingly called "little brains" in the film). But, even though the earth is rejected, the film is
saddled with an earthbound New Age Journal pop psychology that makes it seem as if God is Leo Buscaglia. The important message "Face Your Fears" is steamrolled over the film like an extra layer on the film emulsion, so that even the most obtuse viewer cannot fail to learn these important precepts.
While Brooks belabors his message, he also latches onto repetitious jokes that click in your head like a broken record. Slightly amusing the first time, after three or four more shots, they become as deadly as tracer bullets (constantly repeated references to the quality of the food at Judgment
City as in "What's good here?" "Everything"; the big brain/little brain dichotomy). For the sake of popularity, Brooks has eschewed his dry, incisive humor for oft-repeated jokes and flipbook psychology.
Even more deadly to the film, however, is Brooks's complete abandonment of his comic character. In character comedies, the comic persona is always the instigator of the comic situations. It doesn't require the barrelhouse assaults of the Marx Brothers or Jerry Lewis to put a comic sequence into
action. The seemingly less aggressive comic turns of Jacques Tati, Harry Langdon or the Peter Sellers of BEING THERE can still cause a comic scene to spark. And in Brooks's earlier films, his comic persona was a cyclone of egomania sucking other characters and whole families with him. But Daniel
Miller is a completely passive character, left to dwell on film clips of his mortal life that play more like psychodrama than comic gags.
Another beacon of bad comedy is allowing other actors in the scene to laugh at the comic hero. THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER would have been a much funnier film if bit players were not constantly laughing at Peter Sellers's antics. When that happens, the audience becomes aware of the comic as a
comic putting on a comic performance and the laughter dies at birth. So too in DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, with Meryl Streep's performance, in an embarassing display of giggles and snorts of merriment at every profferred Brooks wisecrack. Not only does this detract from the comic acting but it points out
the thinness of the comedy. Streep in her fawning and nervous laughing delivers less of a performance than the impression of a nervous job applicant attempting to flatter a prospective employer.
With intelligent comedies an endangered species, it is a major disappointment that Albert Brooks couldn't conceive a better follow-up to LOST IN AMERICA. But with muddled thinking infecting most of the produced scripts coming out of Hollywood, Brooks must have caught the virus himself. Maybe
after a few shots and some time for recovery, Brooks can come back with a clear head and interesting ideas that will make his next film worth the wait.
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