Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the release of Son Of God—re-cut from the History Channel’s Bible miniseries—we’re singling out some of our favorite films about religion, spirituality, or the afterlife.
Defending Your Life (1991)
For whatever reasons (The end of the Reagan era? The recession and the dying of the yuppie dream?), the transition from the ’80s into the ’90s produced a quick succession of movies about lustily embracing life, from Dead Poets Society to Ghost to Field Of Dreams. By comparison, and in keeping with the comic persona of its maker, Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life is a dry, low-key film about screaming “carpe diem.” But it’s no less effective in its appraisal of what it means to really live. That said, the most memorable thing about it is Brooks’ vision of what happens when we die: Brooks plays an ad executive who croaks and goes to a Palm Springs resort-like purgatory called Judgment City, where the weather’s always perfect, the food is plentiful and delicious (and you’ll never gain a pound), and the only thing intruding on the vacation fun is the little matter of having to go over every mistake you’ve ever made before a tribunal of celestial judges.
It’s a fairly high concept for Brooks, who—as seen in movies like Modern Romance—specializes in the sort of small, slowly paced moments that would seem anathema to the story of a man grappling with the very meaning of existence. But Defending Your Life’s brilliance lies in that smallness, in the way Brooks paints even the afterlife as just another bureaucracy, overseen by God’s own personal paper-pushers. Brooks’ defense attorney, played with typical salty verve by Rip Torn, is both glad-handing and matter-of-fact about his chances of moving on instead of being shuttled back to Earth, which will only happen if he’s deemed to have conquered his fears and pushed beyond the 3 percent of his brain not constantly consumed with them. His prosecuting attorney, nicknamed the “Dragon Lady,” obviously wants to prove he hasn’t—but even this is simply part of her job. There’s a presumed, comforting-to-agnostics baseline of morality and reason to all of this; in the end, just about everyone who isn’t a murderer will get to make their case in Judgment City. (Well, murderers and teenagers. “Too much trouble,” Torn says of the latter. “They go elsewhere.”)
Still, even in Heaven (or the anteroom of Heaven), earthly torment waits in the burgeoning, probably doomed love affair between Brooks and the angel shoo-in played by Meryl Streep. It’s their cautious romance—amid the diversions of the Past Lives Pavilions and all-night comedy clubs (like a purgatory within Purgatory)—that gives the film its dramatic structure, as Brooks struggles with the fear of losing Streep when they inevitably part ways, due to that very fear. But if the lesson of Defending Your Life echoes the “seize the day” sentiment of its era, its most lasting impression is the far more mundane yet alluring fantasy that if there is an afterlife—and let’s say maybe we didn’t “seize the day”— at least we’ll all be judged rationally. And while we wait for a verdict, we can eat all we want and go bowling.
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Availability: Defending Your Life is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.