Thirty years ago, Daniel Miller (one of Albert Brooks’ many fault-laden leading men that’re really just Brooks in disguise) died in a head-on collision with a bus. Driving home after purchasing a new car, albeit not the nicest one in the lot, Miller had decided to celebrate his birthday with a long solo drive, saying, “You’re born alone, celebrate it. Celebrate aloneness. That’s what birthdays are for.”
Miller wakes up in a version of the afterlife, a place called Judgment City, where he has five days to defend his life in a court-like proceeding involving two judges, a prosecutor and his own defender, played to a tee by Rip Torn. 1991’s Defending Your Life, Brooks’ fourth directorial effort, gave a comforting picture of a regular man in the afterlife and sifted through the idea that we all live fear-plagued lives.
Defending Your Life which only made around $16 million at the box office but garnered critical acclaim, features understood staples of Brooks’ earlier work and his films still to come: Opening scene speeches, plenty of cameos (or bit parts by known actors) and time spent driving, and a central relationship surrounding Brooks and a woman he (desperately) needs. As always, Brooks skewers a version of himself, exposing parts of his own psyche and personality that negatively impact him and others he loves.
In the case of Defending Your Life, Brooks tackles fear through the lens of a humanized, fair afterlife, one that’s less extreme than the Biblical ideas of heaven and hell. Instead, Judgment City contains the hallmarks of any city: Bowling alleys, late-night comedy, golf courses and all-you-can-eat restaurants with lightning-fast service and no feeling of a full stomach. It simulates Earth in both look and feel, and for these 400,000 residents, it resembles parts of the Western United States.
But it’s a pitstop, as Bob Diamond (Torn) explains to Miller, for those that are ready to advance within the universe, expanding their knowledge and the use of their brain. Diamond states that life is “devoted to dealing with fear,” after telling a confused Miller that humans only use 3-5% of their brains. If you don’t pass judgment in this pitstop, you’re sent back to Earth, and Miller’s been sent back about 20 times. Like most of Brooks’ leading men, he’s relatable in his normalcy. The specifics of Daniel Miller’s personality mirror our own. He hates to be called Dan. As a kid, he caves when questioned by his father, and as an adult, he caves when negotiating with his boss.
He lives life with a sense of complacency, having just enough reassurance, success, confidence and happiness to not strive for anything more, a staple in Brooks’ brand of comedy. A Brooks leading man doesn’t have financial hardships or life-threatening illnesses. His problems are internal. He’s dissatisfied with a female relationship (Modern Romance, Mother), with a well-paying job (Real Life, Lost in America, The Muse), or in the case of Defending Your Life, simply the way that he’s lived. His characters’ lives contain success and love, so he should be doing fine. He’s just not. He’s always in turmoil, thinking of how he can rework his surroundings. His comedy depends on us relating to his never-ending quest for fulfillment, his anxiety of the current, “average” status of his life and his inability to feel unfettered happiness for longer than a moment. He’s terrified he’s living life in the wrong way, and in that way, many of us can relate.
Yes, there’s wit with snappy, realistic dialogue, but the biggest laughs come from Brooks acting as a conduit for the audience. In Defending Your Life, he acts as someone who hates judgment, avoiding it at all costs, in constant horror of embarrassment, others’ opinions and his own faltering image. He buys a new car only to see a nicer one sitting a few feet away. He sits in a swiveling chair while being examined by judges, turning at a torturous pace. His attorney can’t make it because he’s lost, and his new one—who actually uses 51% of his brain—won’t say anything besides “I’m fine” when asked to defend his client. He never got receipts from the homeless people he gave money to, so he worries that the judges won’t know he showed some semblance of kindness.
The list goes on and on with minute daily occurrences that throw off Miller, a well-meaning man that has clearly never done anything heroic enough to make the local paper. As his life is on trial, he begins laughing as he comes into contact with the worst and best of his memories. He cannot believe how stupid, how embarrassed, how scared or how brave he was. It becomes difficult not to put yourself in that chair, rewatching moments when you were terrified to ask for a promotion, when you made the wrong financial decision, or when you felt uncomfortable in your own skin.
Preceding Defending Your Life’s examination of fear and embarrassment was Brooks’ Modern Romance. Where Defending Your Life saw a Brooks character look back on the fear he had while on Earth, 1981’s Modern Romance (celebrating its 40th anniversary this month) sees that fear in real time. As film editor Robert Cole, Brooks explores male jealousy, doubt, insecurity and consistently flawed reasoning. After dating Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold) for an unspecified amount of time, Cole decides to break up with her, unsure if she’s “the one.” The following 90ish minutes focus on that choice, and Cole’s inability to actually make up his mind due to his increasing jealousy, unwillingness to be alone for more than a single evening and alarming sense that she’s the best partner he might ever have—regardless of their love-hate relationship.
Two scenes solidify Modern Romance as Brooks’ most physically comedic film. After taking two quaaludes from a friend and co-editor played by Bruno Kirby, Cole makes a series of phone calls and less-than-thoughtful decisions. During an extended single take, he calls Jay (Kirby) to tell him that he loves him, attempts to buy 100 quaaludes, turns on music only to turn it off 20 seconds later, berates a friend for attempting to ask about his now-ex-girlfriend (calling him “Mr. Trashcan”) and asks out a woman named Ellen. Actually, he says her name 19 times in about three minutes. Brooks’ energy is frenetic, his dialogue speeding up while his body lags behind. It shows his full range as a writer, director and actor, giving us a scene that simultaneously evokes pity, laughter and an emotional connection to this man’s loneliness. It somehow surpasses The Wolf of Wall Street on the Quaalude Scene Mt. Rushmore.
The second scene finds Cole at work, meeting with the sound effects team in a small room. Due to prompting by the director of the latest feature he’s editing (real-life director James L. Brooks, who would later cast Albert Brooks in Broadcast News), Cole must redo the running of the general on the spaceship to include more stomping, more thuds, more power. He initially attempts to use “Hulk running,” but ends up doing it himself, carrying around a water jug while Kirby chases him around the room to simulate the scene.
A Brooks’ character’s life highlight the absurdity in his daily mundane tasks, regardless of his occupation in a given film. He’s just doing what needs to get done, ridiculousness aside. Other things are on his mind, like Mary’s phone bill and her repeated calls to a New York number, but with a large sigh, he forces himself to jog with an empty water jug—and is even pleased with the final product. Even when we’re doing something we hate, we still want to be good at it.
Going back yet another 10 years, before the silly yet emotionally cogent Modern Romance—before the stand-up comedian became an independent film director or Oscar-nominated actor—Brooks wrote a spoof article in Esquire formatted as an ad for “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians.” At age 23, Brooks wrote “The state of American humor is no longer a laughing matter” above an image of him waving at the camera, wearing a suit and tie, and sitting behind a desk. He praises Alka-Seltzer commercials, which show us “that something that tries to be funny but is dumb is actually funny because it’s dumb. This is wit…” As in the case of Modern Romance, he was right—especially when diving into the silly, foolish and ridiculous nature of the male psyche.
I’m sure some people believed Brooks was serious, and his school was really situated on 22 acres near Arlington National Park, thanks to photoshopped pictures of faculty, with famous comedians, photos of “students,” tips and tricks, comedy tests and testimonials. All in all, it’s six pages of spit takes, mad libs, one-liners, cartoons and the importance of heartfelt gestures that helped define an auspicious career early.
Modern Romance and Defending Your Life weren’t smash hits. Brooks’ most financially successful directorial effort was Mother, the film he made after the latter. If anything, Brooks’ directorial efforts only declined after that, with his final films The Muse (featuring incredible cameos by James Cameron and Martin Scorsese) and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World flopping and only earning middling critical reaction. But for a small subset of comedy fans and those who happen upon the film, Defending Your Life holds more weight than nearly any film that came in the 30 years following its release. This particular Brooks film is built on the idea that a person can change for the better, a shift from his earlier efforts writing male characters trapped in their own flaws.
With Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost In America, Brooks disallows his male protagonists to learn from their mistakes, deciding to set a house on fire, propose days after breaking up with a long-term girlfriend and driving across the country in a Winnebago, all to get some version of what they believe will give them happiness. Defending Your Life allows for self-improvement—with much of that positive change results from Miller’s relationship with Julia (Meryl Streep). A woman who lived her days saving children from burning buildings and calling her mailman by his first name, Julia exacerbates Miller’s fear—yet affirms him. After they meet, she leaves him a voicemail the following day, saying “I miss you. Isn’t that odd?” She tells him that she loves him, despite the only response he can muster is to repeatedly say her name. There is more optimism to be found. Watching Miller’s life unfold before him, to his shame, felt reminiscent of those nights you spend lying awake at 3 AM, wondering why you were too scared to tell someone you loved them. If Brooks’ vision of the afterlife is true, though, it sounds comforting: This isn’t our only shot to succeed. Brooks understands that fear might be the most relatable aspect of daily life, and this film has the ability to lessen your worries and put you at ease, if only for two hours.
Defending Your Life remains Albert Brooks’ directorial peak, a signal that the filmmaker matured beyond the lighter satire of Modern Romance and his Esquire article, each with a decade of progress between them. It contains a sweet combination of relatability and story singularity that Brooks learned from his early projects yet struggled to capture again. His comedy was refined, not relying on physicality or manic energy to find a laugh, thanks in part to his own subtle performance. Defending Your Life becomes worthy of near-endless rewatches, packed with comfort, Brooksian wit, understated acting and an example of a filmmaker evolving in his ability to resonate with audiences. In a diverse career filled with peaks for Brooks as actor, director and writer—who else could pull off both Drive and Finding Nemo?—Defending Your Life becomes one for the three’s intersection, an endearing portrait of the afterlife by a man working at the height of his powers.
Brooklyn-based film and TV journalist Michael Frank contributes to several outlets including The Film Stage, RogerEbert, AwardsWatch, and now Paste. He believes Juliette Binoche deserved an Oscar for Dan in Real Life. You can find him on Twitter.