This is a ‘snoozer.’
Technically not a ‘sleeper’ hit, pulling $16M at the box office. Which, in 1991, is a lot of money, right?
Well, it’s money, we can agree on that.
Anyway. Now twenty-three years post-theatrical release, nobody remembers its existence. It’s a shame, really. That’s why I’m coining the phrase, ‘snoozer,’ a good movie everyone seems to forget about.
Because wow, this movie holds up.
I think it’s easier to watch Defending Your Life when you know the year it’s from. Even then though, the production design is spectacular. It’s easy to discern they’re shooting on a set sometimes, but it’s strangely enchanting.
First of all, this movie’s written, directed by and starring Albert Brooks as Daniel Miller. That man’s talent is underutilized. He’s a great actor, and Defending Your Life is an all-star picture that fires on all cylinders.
From recent memory, he’s great as Paul Rudd’s father in This is 40, and he’s just spectacular in Drive. In DYF he’s playing a much less antagonistic role.
An obvious and (what some may consider) dull comparison to make is with Kafka’s The Trial. Perhaps there was some inspiration there.
The script is reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie; each line’s meticulously written so there’s humor in every beat. Everything occurs for more than one reason, and it’s all very thought provoking.
Judgment City is one of the most intelligent and detailed depictions of the afterlife you’ll ever see.
The ‘attorneys’ (although they prefer not to be thought of that way) are the best part of this film. Lee Grant as Lena Foster (the prosecutor) and Rip Torn as Bob Diamond (Miller’s defense attorney) are stupendous. They establish a captivating back-and-forth from the get-go.
Grant’s role in DYF comes in toward the tail end of a long acting career. It’s her job to be the bad guy in purgatory, and she accomplishes this in spades, but Lena’s not without subtlety or nuance.
To use his own quote, Torn’s character is, “just dynamite.” He’s the most optimistic, lovable person and I enjoy seeing the loyal friend character; someone the protagonist (and the audience) can always count on.
Meryl Streep’s excellent also; her character exemplifies ‘affability.’ It’s the quality you recognize in all genuinely good people. She’s quick to laugh and can tell when someone expects her to, and she’s easy going; unfettered by worry.
Seriously, it’s quietly a masterful performance. This is the best role I’ve seen Meryl in.
Well friends, if you haven’t seen Defending Your Life, it’s a five star comedy with compelling characters, an intelligent narrative and some very touching sequences. Despite the predictable ending, it brought a tear to this humble reviewer’s eye.
But if you’re sensitive to spoilers stop reading now.
To comment on the aforementioned character of Lena Foster, it’s worthy of note because she’s intense and accusatory but you can see her feelings deep down. She wants Miller to move on from Earthly life, but she can’t force it on him. Ultimately, she wishes him the best.
In consideration of the inherent difficulty in world building, Brooks’ exploration of the material is vast and thorough. He put a lot of work into writing this screenplay, and it shines through in certain moments in an indirect manner.
For example, Miller asks where Diamond (Rip Torn) was the day before.
“I’d tell you but you wouldn’t understand,” Diamond says.
“Don’t treat me like a moron, try me,” Miller says.
“I was trapped near the inner circle of fault.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I told you…”
There are four main trial sequences, and instead of doing the exact same thing (having Diamond vehemently defend the merits of Miller’s choices) the stand-in utilizes a different defensive method by having Miller defend himself. This offers the viewer a greater variation in scenes.
And if the only option for pay-off is explaining it as nonsensical (literally), then so be it.
Another good example is during the final trial sequence.
I think we all know what’s coming when Foster shows the clip of the night before, a scene from the lobby of Julia’s hotel. Perhaps Brooks recognized the potential for cheesiness ahead of time, and wrote the following exchange as a precautionary measure.
Foster brings up the clip and Rip Torn objects.
“I was told we’re not doing that anymore,” Diamond says.
“No one told you that,” a judge responds.
It’s hilarious, nonsensical and completely out of left field, but it works! It’s a great joke, and totally justifies the placement of the scene.
Which transitions into my sole criticism of the film. It’s a bit predictable. But that’s fine, given the unbroken flow of well-rounded moments provided along the way.
It’s illustrative of a larger truth. A well-thought out story can be efficient. The ending doesn’t have to be spectacular for us to buy in. It can be satisfactory if the ride was even more so to get there.
Defending Your Life reminds us that great screenplays can often be great enough.
There’s still one thing that baffles me:
Why isn’t it out on Blu-Ray?