Defending Your Life (1991) – A cheerful little film from Albert Brooks


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“When you use more than five percent of your brain, you don’t want to be on Earth, believe me”, tells Bob Diamond (played by Rip Torn) to Daniel Miller (played by Albert Brooks) in one scene. It’s an amusing line. In the same scene, he also tells him that most people on Earth use only 3% of their brains and that this 3% is reserved for dealing with fear on a daily basis. All kinds of fear. And because of this, he calls them “little brains” behind their backs. This is one of those movies that makes me feel happy every time I see it. Directed and written by Albert Brooks, Defending Your Life feels like just any other Albert Brooks film, where he addresses several of his own existential questions and all the ridiculous things that human beings generally do.

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The story is about an advertising executive Daniel who has just died after a major car accident and is now baffled to find himself somewhere in the afterlife. It’s neither hell nor heaven, tells Bob when he asks him where he really is. It’s a place called Judgment City and resembles Earth, but without all the earthly problems people normally experience. For e.g, there are restaurants where you can eat how much ever you want without worrying about weight gain. The inhabitants are dressed in white robes, they have their own special hotel rooms, transportation system, bowling alleys and everything. Judgment City has a special court where the defendants’ lives are judged and they are given a chance to, well, defend their lives. If the court finds that a particular person was able to conquer his fears, they’ll be deemed worthy of moving to the next phase – a superior phase of existence, somewhere in the universe. Otherwise, they’ll be send to Earth to live once again and make an attempt to conquer all their fears. The judgment process requires the defendants to be seated in front of the judges and watch footage of their past lives, until a judgment is made. Daniel fails as the footage shows him trying to grapple with various kinds of fears and his inability to conquer them. He is disappointed. He comes across a woman named Julia (played by Meryl Streep) who has had a relatively easier life. He immediately falls in love with her. He soon learns that her transition to the next, superior phase of existence has been approved and this dampens his spirits further. Whether or not he’ll be able to move on to this next phase along with Julia forms the rest of the story.

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Even though it’s a story that deals with the afterlife, it’s actually an exploration of this life. It’s neither preachy, melodramatic or pretentious. On the contrary, it’s very uplifting. It makes you ask some questions of your own. It shares some themes with the 1946 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death. You feel as if you are reading a damn good book on spirituality that’s not boring for a change. Brooks and Meryl share a cute chemistry. And by the way, you don’t have to be a believer in the afterlife to enjoy it. Anyone can. We all deal with different kinds of fears in our day-to-day lives and I’m sure it will touch a chord in every single one of us.

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