Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. I’m taking a different approach this time around and decided to focus on one title that deserves its own column and this could very well be a glimpse at what future features might reflect as well. Without further ado from the Criterion Collection allow me to discuss Albert Brooks’s phenomenally funny take on the afterlife Defending Your Life.
Albert Brooks has many existential ideas pertaining to the human condition that surface in Defending Your Life and the most prominent theme he explores is fear. Fear is the opposition to the fruitfulness that is being. To quote Soren Kierkegaard “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) is a man who knows inadequacy like the back of his hand. When he arrives to pick up his new BMW on his birthday his eyes become fixated on a grand and glorious machine that sparkles in the afternoon sun and then the dealer points him to his car. Sure, it’s smaller and not as glossy, but why should envy motivate an exchange? He might drive off a bit reluctantly and that’s his choice. Perhaps he might convince himself in the end he chose the one he felt he deserved.
This exchange completely encapsulates Daniel’s entire dilemma. He reflexively shrugs off his discomfort, pops in Barbara Streisand’s rendition of “Something’s Coming” into the cd deck and merrily sings along in solitude and manufactured joy. A fatal collision with a city bus thrusts our reluctant protagonist to Judgement City, an architectural purgatory where mortals are placed in a relaxing manifestation awaiting judgement in hopes of evolving to the next stage of life. This manifestation is replicated to Earth as to relieve the stress that would naturally come when awaiting the fate of one’s soul. There’re golf courses and luxurious hotels. One benefit that’s constantly brought to attention is how everyone can eat completely guilt-free and never gain an ounce. It’s all presented as a projection of how Brooks perceives our civilization at its core: artificial without question, yet somehow nurturing with its calming demeanor.
Rip Torn’s Bob Diamond, Daniel’s defense attorney, has such optimistic delight that’s he’s never seen without a genuine grin or compelling bout of laughter, is the perfect mouthpiece for Brooks’s self-deprecating outlook at humanity. He proudly informs Daniel that he uses 48% of his brain. When he gleefully breaks the news that humans, or “little brains” as they call them behind their backs, that they only use 3-5%, it’s not meant to be malicious. It’s more empathetic, like how we tend to speak to our own loving pets. Meryl Streep’s Julia has immediate and unassailable chemistry with Daniel as Streep plays to her natural charms which offset Brooks’s wry comedic timing. The two are constantly compelling and the heart of this film.
Julia has a significantly lower number of days than Daniel in which to defend her life and it is a safe bet that she will evolve to the next stage. This creates a conflict knowing Daniel’s circumstances and it’s quite surprising how strong the stakes feel when the narrative turns become more formulaic. Some will argue that this all leads to a conventional conclusion and they’re not wrong, but this is one of those rare cases where it feels completely earned. Daniel is literally running through obstacles to be with Julia and we’re rooting for him. The journey that takes us here is bottomless and we need this resolution as much as Daniel and Julia do.
The extras on this Criterion release widens the conversation in exhilarating ways.
There’s a conversation between Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide as they examine the decidedly more universal approach to tackling theological concepts. Brooks was clearly more concerned with examining courage and fear rather than focusing on specific religious traditions. The subtext is all thoroughly explored. A standout being the thoughtful cameos that add an extra layer such as Shirley MacLaine as the hologram in the “Past Lives Pavilion,” anyone familiar with her background on the subject is sure to chuckle. There’s also, of course, Buck Henry who previously graced Warren Beatty’s adaptation of Heaven Can Wait, here playing the substitute public defender who refuses to mutter a word in Daniel’s favor. It was also fascinating to hear the process of Michael Gore’s (Terms of Endearment) exceptional score and it was delightful to learn how Brooks drew inspiration from “Carnival of the Animals.” Also included is a book essay from filmmaker Ari Aster (Hereditary), interview highlights with the cast from the “Crook and Chase” show, and, finally, my personal favorite, a philosophical examination from a theologian and critic I was unfamiliar with, Donna Bowman. The parallels between hierarchy and social class are thought provoking and add an extra layer to the overall experience. Pointing out how every character in the world Brooks created has someone higher to answer to only enriches the subtext that Brooks is drawing from civilization as we know it. This is not only Brooks’s finest achievement as a filmmaker, but one of the best of its decade. This is a great Blu-ray release from Criterion and strongly recommend it without hesitation.
Defending Your Life Special Features:
- New 4K digital restoration, approved by director Albert Brooks, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New conversation between Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide
- New interview with theologian and critic Donna Bowman about Brooks’s vision of the afterlife
- New program featuring excerpts from interviews conducted in 1991 with Brooks and actors Lee Grant and Rip Torn
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by filmmaker Ari Aster
- New cover based on an original theatrical poster
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection beginning March 30th, 2021.