Writer-Director Albert Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a divorced L.A. advertising executive who dies in a crash with a bus while driving his BMW convertible and singing along to a CD of Barbra Streisand show tunes.
Next stop for Daniel is Judgement City, where the freshly dead all wear kaftans called “tupas” and ride trams between antiseptic hotels, tacky restaurants, amateur comedy clubs and such tourist attractions as the Pavillion of Past Lives.
In this Disneyland for the dead, everyone is resolutely cheerful, and the weather is always 74 degrees and perfectly clear. It’s Brooks’s vision of Hell.
But Judgement City is merely a pitstop where the dead go for a few days to defend their lives in court. Defence lawyer Bob Diamond (Rip Torn is a sassy wonder in this role) tells Daniel he’ll be judged on how well he’s faced down his fears in life.
If Daniel pleases the court, he’ll move on as a citizen of the universe; if he doesn’t, he’ll be sent back to earth. Daniel has already had twenty lifetimes (you remember only the last one) and hasn’t learned much; he’s still using only 3% of his brain.
Not only is Daniel dead, he has to face public humiliation, which he sees as a worse fate. Prosecutor Lena Foster (a nail-tough Lee Grant) is out to expose Daniel as the tangled mass of insecurities he is.
To help the judges decide, selected film clips of Daniel’s life are shown in court – including a compilation reel of 164 of Daniel’s stupidest misjudgements – and there are few sights more riotous than watching him squirm through each of them.
On the bright side, Daniel strikes up a romance with Julia (Meryl Streep), a high-spirited – though deceased – mother of two who is also awaiting judgement. Except for sharing Daniel’s skewed sense of humour, Julia is everything he is not; secure, well-adjusted, heroic.
It’s not a huge role, and Streep wisely doesn’t try to stretch it. Instead, she gives the part a relaxed reading that makes her crack timing even more impressive. And her romantic sparring with Brooks has a piercing sweetness.
But Daniel starts noticing that Julia has a better hotel room than he (they put cream-filled chocolate swans on her pillow at night while he gets a box of cheap mints). Julia’s film clips are also a shock to Daniel – she’s Joan of Arc to his Cowardly Lion.
Brooks doesn’t offer the comfy escapism of a dream world in this comedy of mind, heart and a merry sense of malice. Forget the mood-shattering feel-good ending; Brooks slouches toward it as if he knew it was bogus.
Until then, Defending Your Life makes a solid case for Albert Brooks as an inspired filmmaker and an incomparable clown.