Saturday, July 12, 2014

Stubs – Defending Your Life

Defending Your Life (1991) Starring: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, Buck Henry Directed by Albert Brooks. Screenplay by Albert Brooks. Produced by Robert Grand, Michael Grillo, Herb Nanas Run time 112 minutes. U.S., Color. Romantic Comedy, Drama

I have been a fan of Albert Brooks since his stand up days, seeing him on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson and listening to his Comedy Minus One album (1973), which contains some of his better known bits, such as rewriting the National Anthem. And I really enjoyed the edgy comedy shorts he made for the first season of Saturday Night Live (1975-76). (Rumor has it he was once approached about being a permanent host for the show.)

And when he made the move to feature films as an actor/writer/director (a la Woody Allen), I followed him and apparently was one of the few to see his first film, Real Life (1979), in a theater, judging by its less than a half a million dollar box office gross. That film was meant to be a satire on one of the first reality shows: An American Family (1972). Brooks was perhaps a little late coming to the table with the spoof. The film itself was uneven. A big idea, the film never seemed to find its way to the point that he had to burn down the family’s house as a way of ending the story. It was as if the film within the film knew it wasn’t working.

You probably don't remember this: In Real Life, Brooks demonstrates one of the
cameras being used to capture the daily lives of the Yeager family of Phoenix, Arizona.

A couple of years later Brooks returned with Modern Romance (1981), which he again co-wrote, directed and starred in along with Kathryn Harrold. While the film starts out with one of the funniest openings, it too loses its way. Some moments are more awkward than funny and as I recall the third act, which had been short changed in Real Life, is too long here.

Lost In America (1985) which we’ve previously reviewed, again starts off with a big idea: a couple will pool all their money, or nest egg, and live a simple life. They make one mistake, stopping to spend one last night in civilization in Las Vegas only to discover the wife has a gambling problem and loses the nest egg. Now what? Again, a great idea, but it gets bogged down in places and a last minute solution again rushes the third act.

It is worth noting that Brooks was also acting in other people’s movies along the way, his most notable coming in James L. Brooks’ (no relation) Broadcast News (1987), for which Brooks was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He had also appeared in such films as Taxi Driver (1976), Private Benjamin (1980), The Twilight Zone (1983) and Terms of Endearment (1983).

This brings us to Brooks’ fourth film, Defending Your Life.

On his birthday, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks), a 40-year-old Los Angeles advertising executive, is given some CDs (something new at the time) and a player by his co-workers. Afterwards, he picks up his new car, a BMW convertible, at the dealership. While driving around listening to a CD the stack falls to the floor. Instead of keeping his eyes on the road, Daniel leans down to pick them up and ends up in a head on accident with a city bus.

Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) is having a good birthday: gifts from friends
and a new car. Too bad he doesn't know it's his last day on Earth.

He comes to in a wheelchair being taken to a tram that takes him and others from the Western U.S. to Judgment City, a Heaven-like waiting area and populated by the recently deceased. There, he, and everyone else, is set to undergo the process of having his life on earth judged. Judgment City offers many Earth-like amenities, including all-you-can-eat restaurants, where the food is the best they’ve ever eaten and causes no weight gain, bowling alleys, golf courses and comedy clubs.

Like other recently deceased from the Western U.S., Daniel finds himself on the Tram to Judgment City.

As his defense attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), explains to Daniel, people from Earth use so little of their brains (3-5%) that they spend most of their lives functioning on the basis of their fears. "When you use more than 5% of your brain, you don't want to be on Earth, believe me," says Diamond. Diamond explains that in order to move on to the next phase of existence, they are judged to see if they’re ready. Only if they’re found to have conquered their fears will he be sent on to the next phase of existence, where he will be able to use more of his brain and thus be able to experience more of what the universe has to offer. Otherwise, he will be sent back to Earth until he gets it right or until the Universe decides to throw him away.

Daniel's judgment process is presided over by two unnamed judges (Lillian Lehman and George D. Wallace). There are four days of hearings in which particular days from Daniel’s life will be played for the court. Diamond will argue that Daniel should be allowed to move onto the next phase. His formidable opponent, Lena Foster (Lee Grant), will argue that he’s not ready. Over lunch, Diamond informs Daniel that she is known as "the Dragon Lady."

At the comedy club, Daniel meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a woman who, compared with him, lived a life without fear. Rather than the nine days they are looking at from his life, they are only looking at four from Julia’s. It becomes quite apparent from the residents, the people who live and work in Judgment City, who ask Daniel how many days the same as we might ask how are you doing, that the fewer the better.

While heckling the MC at the comedy club, Daniel gets Julia's (Meryl Streep) attention.

True to that, Lena brings up several incidents over the four days of hearings where Daniel was driven by fear. He practiced with his reluctant-to-help wife (Susan Walters) asking for a starting salary, but when offered far less capitulates immediately. She shows a scene from childhood where he doesn’t fight back when a bully picks on him in front of his classmates. She even shows him turning down a chance to invest in Casio before they became known as a watchmaker, a $10,000 investment that would have been worth over $30 million. Daniel keeps thinking it’s about money, but Lena argues that it’s about how fear kept him from earning more.

Bob puts on a happy face from Daniel, but you get the feeling he thinks he’s doomed. His defense is to show how as a baby Daniel was traumatized by watching his parents fight, but learns restraint when his father doesn’t hit his mother and he shows a snow mobile accident that Daniel had at Big Bear. Thrown down a mountainside, Daniel broke his leg in two places and had to crawl three miles for help. Lena argues that’s self-preservation, not overcoming fear.

It's not a court, but you are on trial. Lena (Lee Grant) is about to show an incriminating scene from Daniel's Life.

The second day of the hearings Bob doesn’t show and is replaced by Dick Stanley (Buck Henry), a defender who uses more of his brain than Bob, but who is even quieter. Everyone insists Dick is a good lawyer, but Daniel thinks he’s doomed.

Meanwhile his relationship with Julia blooms quickly into love. She misses her past, but feels ready to move on. (I guess the “until death do us part” of the wedding vow is literal when it comes to the after-life.) It is obvious to all that she’s in a better place than Daniel as far as moving on. Not only is her hotel nicer and more sophisticated than Daniel’s, but she is on much closer terms with her defense, Sam (Leonard O. Turner).

In one of the funnier sequences, Julia and Daniel visit the Past Lives Pavilion where attendees can see who they’ve been in past lives. The show is hosted by Shirley MacLaine playing herself. (For those too young to remember, before this film was made, MacLaine had made quite a splash in the media with her proclamations about having found out some of her past lives.) Julia finds that she was Prince Valiant; Daniel discovers he was an African native about to be eaten by a lion.

At the Past Lives Pavilion, 

On the last night before their last hearing, Daniel takes Julia back to her hotel. She confesses her love for him and asks him to spend the night. What happens next nearly seals the deal for Daniel’s return. As much as he wants to, he declines. He almost says he’s afraid, but catches himself, telling her instead that he’s tired of being judged and thinks it would be better for him if he didn’t.

Julia wants to take the relationship to an intimate level, but Daniel
is, well, afraid of how it will look to those judging his life.

This gets brought up the next day by Lena, who shows this to the judges as a sign that Daniel is still living with fear. Bob tries to argue that Daniel was worried about getting a disease, but even Daniel doesn’t buy that. He gives his own closing statement reiterating several times that if given the chance to move on, he’ll really try his best.

The scene from the night before is the last nail in Daniel's coffin,  so to speak. 

This does not sway the judges and Daniel is to be sent back to Earth. Bob takes him to the tram (the after-life is apparently a lot like the Universal Studio tour) that will return him. At the same station, Julia is on her tram that will take her on. When she sees Daniel, she calls out his name. Determined now not to let fear keep him from her, Daniel breaks out of his tram and, even though hurt in a fall, runs to her tram, hanging on despite electrical shocks.

Daniel doesn't let fear keep him from Julia.

Back in the courtroom, Bob, Lena and the judges are watching all this. Convinced that Daniel has overcome his fears, the judges instruct Julia’s tram to let him on. And the two head down the tunnel to the next phase of existence together.

Like the rest of Brooks' films, Defending Your Life is very funny, but what elevates it over his other work has to do is its consistency. The writing is much stronger, again telling a big concept story, but sticking with it this time. As a filmmaker, Brooks was just starting to come into his own. His next films, Mother (1996) and The Muse (1999), would continue the trend of truly funny films.

The acting is also really good as well. It’s always a treat to watch someone like Rip Torn act. He was one of the best things about The Larry Sanders Show (1992-6) for example and he shows off that same comic timing here as well.

Rip Torn plays Bob Diamond, Daniel's defender. I really enjoyed him in this part.

Lee Grant has a much less developed character, but she plays the cold leading prosecutor as well as anyone could. Buck Henry also has his usual quirky presence as Daniel’s fill-in life defender.

For me, Meryl Streep took awhile to get to me as an actress. While I thought she was a good actress, I didn’t see the brilliance that everyone else seemed to. She seemed to have built her career on dramatic roles in such films as Julia (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), but her forays into comedy were somewhat mixed. She had a small part in Manhattan (1978); this was the first true comedy I had seen her in and she does very well with the role. I know she had made a couple before this film and I’ve since gone back and seen her in Postcards from the Edge (1990). She is an actress with a great range.

Brooks is good as the lead character. You get the real sense that Daniel knows the deck is stacked against him, but he has no choice but to go through with it. I don’t know Brooks at all, but he plays the character like he’s playing himself in that situation, the same way Woody Allen always seemed to be playing himself in his films, especially the early ones. Brooks' best work as an actor though seems to be in films directed by others, most notably the previously mentioned Broadcast News.

Despite the film receiving mostly positive reviews at the time of release, it was not a box office success, garnering a little more than $16 million. Perhaps Brooks’ previous efforts had made it difficult for him to fill the seats in the theater. Low box office returns will haunt Brooks’ directing career. He is apparently an acquired taste.

But the question is should you see this film and the answer is yes. Defending Your Life takes a very funny look at the afterlife and leaves you with a sense that you have to make every day count and not let your fears get in the way of fulfilling your own destiny. Not necessarily a new concept, but one that is delivered with a lot of laughs.

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