Thursday, May 21, 2020

Defending Your Life Provides an Imaginative and Thoughtful Rendering of the Afterlife

You gotta begin your movie with a bang and Defending Your Life certainly starts off its story with a whopper of a development. Before the opening credits even begin, the protagonist, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks), has died. On his birthday no less! Yes, while driving around in a new car and loudly singing along to a tune on the radio, Daniel didn't see that bus headed straight for him until it was too late. Just as he's about to collide with the vehicle, Daniel awakens in another place entirely. The now-deceased Daniel is in the afterlife, though he's in neither Heaven or Hell. Turns out he's in Judgement City, a place of purgatory where Daniel learns that humans are not the only beings in the universe.

There are other humanoids out there who run Judgement City and they're far more intelligent than Earth humans who only use 3-5% of their brains. Here in Judgement City, deceased Earth residents like Daniel will get events of their lives judged. If their actions in life are deemed worthy, they get to move on to the next plane of existence. If not, they'll have to go back to Earth and start another life all over again. Daniel's life is on the line and now he'll have to confront who he was and the capacity he has for being something more. Defending Your Life's high-concept premise doesn't make it the kind of comedy you could succinctly sum up in an elevator pitch, but writer/director Albert Brooks' conjures up a screenplay that, thankfully, avoids getting stuck in a quagmire of convoluted lore.

Defending Your Life operates more like a fairy tale, a comment I mean as a massive compliment. Brooks wisely leaves much of the mechanics of Judgement City to the imagination. Explanations for Judgement City tend to function as set-ups for jokes (like dead teenagers going someplace else because they're too rowdy) rather than monotonous exposition. Defending Your Life isn't a movie about the in's and out's of its central location. This is a story about investigating the most throwaway moments of a man's life to determine who he really is. Brooks clearly understands this and uses Judgement City to support that story rather than distract from it.

Plus, leaving mystery in regards to how Judgement City works only makes it that much more appealing as a place to set a story. The world itself is imaginatively-realized while its mixture of different architectural styles lends variety to the various places visited by Daniel and fellow deceased human Julia (Meryl Streep). While the offices of Daniel's defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) look like they're a couple cubicles away from being the average white-collar workspace in the 1990s, Daniel gets around on a tram that seems to be ripped straight out of a vision of the future circa. 1958. Much like Blazing Saddles, Defending Your Life is a reminder that comedies don't have to sacrifice imaginative production design and visuals.

In addition to providing an imaginative depiction of the afterlife, Brooks' script also delivers quietly thoughtful ruminations on what defines a life well-lived. That's a lofty question, one that really can't be boiled down easily to one word. Allowing rival defenders Diamond and Lena Foster (Lee Grant) to spar over various events and actions in Daniel's life is a great way to deftly explore the different ways one can categorize an existence as fulfilling. The fact that both parties (even ostensible antagonist Foster) are allowed to make succinct points only enhances the nuanced nature of Defending Your Life. Similarly thoughtful are the moments from Daniel's life that are used to pinpoint whether he has the courage to move on to the next phase of existence. Rather than looking at big flashy life events, we see smaller throwaway moments examined.

Those parts of life we might forget about ten minutes after they happen, those can be the ones that end up meaning more than we could ever imagine. Defending Your Life is a truly thoughtful rumination on the nature of existence, one that combines its contemplative nature with lots of memorable jokes and exceedingly charming romantic banter between Brooks and Streep. It's the kind of movie that quietly sneaks up on you in terms of how emotionally attached you've become to the characters. It's always a thrilling experience to watch a movie's climax and suddenly realize you're fully absorbed into this fictitious world. That's just what happened with me during the moving finale of Defending Your Life. A movie that begins with death concludes its narrative on a heartwarming note of hope.

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