When Defending Your Life was released in 1991, it was not the first time humanity had wondered about the afterlife, and moreover not the first time the topic was romanticized in movies. Written and directed by Albert Brooks, Defending Your Life revolves around Judgement City, an in-between place people go to after dying to be judged, as the name suggests.
The protagonist Daniel Miller, also played by Brooks, dies in a car crash and wakes up in Judgement City. The city is portrayed dream-like, from amazing restaurants to fun activities and a beautiful vista. The world Brooks creates therefore already differentiates itself from works with similar settings. An upbeat feeling is present throughout the introductory scenes of the city that intrigues the audience about how the judgement actually proceeds.
The plot line shows some cliché approaches when Julia (Meryl Streep) is introduced as a love interest, as Daniel and Julia’s dynamics resemble most of the romantic comedies that have been around in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the originality of the circumstances still keeps the evolution of the relationship fresh and somewhat new.
The judgement part of the story is probably the most hard-hitting one, as it is also the main focus of the film. Unlike most other stories regardless of the medium, Defending Your Life is not very concerned about the sins committed during one’s life, and the same applies more or less to the good one did when alive. Au contraire, Daniel Miller has to defend his life for the times he lacked courage with proof of times where he showed real courage. If a person fails to show a sufficient amount of moments where they had courage, they will have to go back to earth and live again.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the film had quite an interesting take on the afterlife. With the tagline “the first true story of what happens after you die”, Defending Your Life does not really concern itself with God or similar deities, but instead focuses only on the uniquely constructed courage notion. Throughout the judgement, Daniel re-witnesses occurrences from his life, where he has to explain himself as to why he lacked courage in certain circumstances.
Daniel’s wife (during rehearsal for salary negotiations): How much do you want?
Daniel Miller: How much are you offering?
Daniel’s wife: Fifty-five thousand dollars.
Daniel Miller: I can’t work here for a penny under sixty-five.
Daniel’s wife: Well, I can’t pay you sixty-five.
Daniel Miller: Then I can’t work here. I’m sorry.
Daniel’s wife: Fifty-eight thousand.
Daniel Miller: Sixty-five.
Daniel’s wife: Sixty.
Daniel Miller: Sixty-five.
Daniel’s wife: Sixty-one?
Daniel Miller: Let me make this perfectly clear to you: I can’t work for you for any less than sixty-five thousand dollars.
Prosecutor in the Judgement City: Now, your honor, allow me to show you the real encounter:
Agency head: I’m prepared to offer you forty-nine thousand dollars.
Daniel Miller: I’ll take it.
The jokes and repartees as the storyline evolves do really fit the quirkily thematized style of the film, and are bound to make the audience smile quite often. They might at times come across as too ‘planned’, as Daniel Miller always knows the exact joke to make at the right time, but disregarding that, the jokes are funny on their own nevertheless.
Granted, the story takes a hit at times because of the dynamics of Daniel and Julia, but those cases do not necessarily obstruct the enjoyment one can get from Defending Your Life. Overall, Brooks’ 1991 film is a fun Sunday evening activity given that it makes the audience spend an easy two-hour-block at once whilst entertaining them with a new perspective on the afterlife. This is a rare case for romantic comedies, thus it is a shame Defending Your Life has gone mostly unnoticed when it was released back in 1991.