Tuesday, March 22, 2011
This one's for all us little brains
By Edward Copeland
Six years had transpired since Albert Brooks released the last film he co-wrote and directed, Lost in America, when Defending Your Life opened 20 years ago today. This time, he was the sole screenwriter, absent his usual partner, Monica Johnson (who died in late 2010), but from the film's beginning, it's almost as if Brooks is reprising his Lost in America role. He's again playing an L.A. advertising executive on his way to pick up a brand new car. This time his name is Daniel Miller, he's divorced and the car is a present to himself for his birthday, not an anticipated promotion. He's also bypassing the Mercedes of the previous film for a BMW convertible. Daniel also isn't about to drop out of society as David Howard and his wife did in Lost in America, he's going to drop out of life — and not by choice.
Daniel's co-workers have thrown him a small office party and, as a gift for his new car, they've gone in on a car CD player with an assortment of CDs unaware (as is Daniel) that the BMW already comes equipped with one. One of his co-workers (James Eckhouse) drives Daniel to the dealership in his large Jeep, which puzzles Daniel who doesn't understand why everyone has begun driving such vehicles. "What do you know that I don't?" Daniel asks. "Are floods coming? Hoover Dam broke? What's going on?" His friend asks about his birthday plans, but Daniel lacks any. He tries to say that birthdays are for being alone. "You are born alone, you should celebrate alone," Daniel tells him. His co-worker says he never thought of it like that. "It's a pitiful theory," Daniel responds.
When Daniel gets to the dealership, the salesman (Gary Beach) is on the phone with a troublesome customer without a sense of humor, but keeps complimenting Daniel on how much weight he's taken off. Daniel doesn't understand what he's talking about since he just saw him three days earlier, then again he just did write the man a check for $39,000. "That's it. You look $39,000 lighter." Once the car is his, he tries out that CD player, inserting Barbra Streisand's The Broadway Album. Soon, he's grooving along as Babs sings "Could be, who knows," Sondheim's lyrics from "Something's Coming" in West Side Story. The stack of CDs slides off the box containing the other player on the passenger seat and Daniel reflexively leans over to retrieve them. When he rises back up, he screams in horror at the sight of what's coming: a large bus which will take him to his next stop, Judgment City. What's so fascinating about the afterlife Brooks creates in Defending Your Life is that the world he's envisioned really is quite comforting. The prospect of what happens after death usually instills people with such a fear of the unknown, even if it's just the idea of ceasing to be, that Judgment City looks like a place you wouldn't mind spending some time in, even if within the contours of the film's plot Judgment City only serves as an intermediary stop between something unknown or a return trip to Earth and while you are there the decision on where you go next is decided based on how you handled fear in the life you just lived.
After being steered through hallways in wheelchairs, the newly deceased get grouped together on trams like you'd find in amusement parks. Too weakened by the transformation to communicate yet, they listen as the tour guide (Julie Cobb) describes Judgment City to them with its championship golf courses and they pass billboards touting great restaurants ("Still eat meat? We have the best! Sid's Steakhouse") and 24-hour bowling alleys. The entire place seems scarily reminiscent of one of those gated retirement villages you'd find in Florida. Where Daniel has landed has been designed to seem familiar to people such as Daniel hailing from Southern California as they service all the Western United States' dead. They get to their destination, the Continental Hotel, where the hotel's manager, Stan (Peter Schuck), greets the new arrivals and tells them that because of what they've just been through, they'll want to go straight to their room and go fast asleep. "You're already checked in. You have nothing to worry about," Stan tells them. "Everything will be explained to you in the morning." He says if they have any questions, he's there to help and gives a big grin. A porter (Time Winters) takes Daniel to his room, which resembles a simple motel room you'd find anywhere on Earth. The porter shows him a closet full of "tupas," the white, caftan-like garments that all the dead wear in Judgment City. He also informs Daniel that the TV has five channels of programming and channel 3 tells him all he needs to know about Judgment City. The still-catatonic Daniel tries to find a pocket so he can tip the man for bringing him to his room, but of course there isn't one. The man tells him he'd be surprised if he found anything in there, but he appreciates the attempt and then leaves to let Daniel rest, which Daniel promptly does by passing out across the bed and falling into slumber.
Elsewhere in Judgment City, a man (Rip Torn) resembling a typical businessman on Earth walks briskly through a rather typical-looking office setting, greeting his co-workers good morning. As he approaches his office, his assistant Susan (Sharlie Stuart) says, "Good morning, Mr. Diamond" and hands him the file on his latest client. He gives the file a quick perusal and doesn't look happy. Diamond asks who is prosecuting. "Lena Foster," Susan tells him. "She's gonna have a field day with this one," Diamond says grimly until Susan tells him that Foster lost a case last Thursday. "Really? There is a God," he responds and tells Susan to call Daniel. Still groggy, Daniel doesn't immediately recognize the noise as a ringing phone, but he eventually rolls over and picks it up. After Susan tells him to hold for Bob Diamond, Bob gets on the phone and asks if he had a good sleep. He then tells Daniel that he is going to get up and shower, put on some of those nice clothes, catch a tram downtown and come see him this morning. "Do you have any idea what's going on?" Bob asks him. Daniel has no idea. "Well, in a nutshell, you are here to defend your life and I'm going to help you," "Defend my life?" Daniel asks, continuing to be dazed and confused. "In a few hours," Bob continues, "you are going to be smarter than anyone you've ever met in your entire life. Sound exciting?" "I guess," the puzzled Daniel says. Then Bob hits Daniel with the best fringe benefit of Judgment City. He asks if he's had breakfast yet, which Daniel hasn't since Bob woke him up, and Bob informs him that not only will the food be the best he's ever tasted but as long as he's there he can eat as much as he wants and it won't affect him physically and he won't gain any weight. "So pig-out," Diamond suggests.
Daniel rises and does a quick flip through the TV dial (You'd think if Judgment City had been designed to resemble the Western U.S. in the early '90s they could have sprung for remote controls). First, he sees a Judgment City soap where a woman (Beth Black) accuses a man (Clayton Norcross) of not even remembering her middle name. He claims she never told him. She says it was the first thing she told him. "Oh yeah. In which life?" he replies archly. A game show is ending on the next station where a very upset woman (Sage Allen) has apparently just lost and the host (James MacKrell) is waiting on the other contestant's decision and the man (Wil Albert) decides to go for it: He's going to face his greatest fear. The next channel gives a primer on Judgment City's golf course, riding stables and buffet where the "chefs will cook all you want, but they won't look." The final channel is The Weather Channel which simply scrolls the ideal conditions of Judgment City: "74 degrees. Perfectly clear. All the time." After he's cleaned and put on his tupa, Daniel goes to the diner in the hotel lobby. He asks the waitress (Mary Pat Gleason) what's good. "Everything." Daniel goes with a cheese omelet and orange juice, which she delivers almost instantly. Daniel asks her if it had been made for someone else because he can't understand how it was prepared so quickly, but she insists it was made specifically for him. He takes a bite and it tastes as good as advertised. He doesn't get to stuff himself as Bob suggested because the porter comes in and tells him a red tram is about to leave for downtown and will get him there by 11 and he should take this one. "These are the best eggs I've ever tasted," Daniel tells the porter. "Of course," he replies. Daniel steals another quick bite and boards the tram to go meet Bob Diamond in person.
On the tram, an old woman (Maxine Elliott) takes an interest in Daniel. "So young. AIDS?" she asks. He tells her no, it was a car accident. The old woman asks if it still hurts but he says no. "Amazing," she says before asking Daniel if this is what he thought the afterlife would be like and he says he he's not sure what it is. The woman says she guesses she doesn't either and then starts touching his hair, saying it reminds her of her poodle before going on a long ramble about her pet that continues until they get to Daniel's stop. A woman introduces herself as Helen (Marilyn Rockafellow), one of Diamond's assistants, and escorts Daniel toward Diamond's office, telling him they always are looking for suggestions to make Judgment City look more Earth-like. Daniel suggests building some of those mini-malls and Helen tells him it's funny he should say that, because they just put six up but she has no use for it because, "I don't like yogurt and I do my own nails." She then sits him outside Diamond's office where there are assortment of coffee table books such as Above Hawaii and the one Daniel grabs, Above Judgment City. Daniel doesn't have long to peruse the book as Bob Diamond comes out to introduce himself and take Daniel into his office. At first, Bob just looks at Daniel contemplatively, so much so that Daniel begins to look around him to see if he's staring at something else before he finally asks if something's wrong. Bob tells him he was just admiring how the tupa looks on him. Some people don't look good in them, but it looks flattering on you, Bob says. Diamond asks Daniel if he has a better idea yet what is going on and Daniel admits not. "Is this Heaven?" he asks Bob, but Diamond answers, "No." Lowering his voice, Daniel then whispers, "Is it Hell?" "Actually, there is no Hell, though I hear Los Angeles is getting close," Bob laughs. Then he goes on to explain what goes on in Judgment City and how it fits into the cycle of life. "When you are born into this universe, you are in it for a very long time," Bob explains to Daniel. "You have many different lifetimes. After each one, there is an examining period, which you're in now. Every second of every lifetime is always recorded. As each one ends, we sort of look at it. Look at a few of the days, examine it and if everyone agrees, you move forward." The concept still puzzles Daniel who asks what he means about moving forward. "The point of this whole thing is to keep getting smarter, to keep growing, to use as much of your brain as possible. For instance, I use 48 percent of my brain." Bob then asks Daniel how much of his brain Daniel thinks he uses. Daniel sort of smiles and guesses, "47?" Smiling, Bob simply says, "Three." The number shocks Daniel. "Excuse me? Three?" He holds up three fingers. Bob tries to reassure him that it isn't unusual because no one on Earth uses more than 3-5% of their brains. "When you use more than five percent of your brain, you don't want to be on Earth. Not that some of your takeout places aren't lovely, but there are many more exciting destinations for smarter people," Diamond tells him. Daniel's defense attorney continues: "Being from Earth as you are and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has been pretty much devoted to dealing with fear." Diamond asks Daniel if any of his friends have stomach pains. He tells him all of them do. That's fear, Diamond tells him. "Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything. Real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can't get through that fog. But you lift it, you're in for the ride of your life. Everybody on Earth deals with fear. That's what little brains do," Bob tells him. "Little brains?" Daniel asks. "That's what we call you behind your backs," Bob cackles, before asking Daniel to forgive him. Daniel notices that Diamond is reading a paper and asks what it is. Bob says he wouldn't understand because it's just numbers. "You read numbers?" "Yes sir!" Daniel finally begins to grasp what faces him: He's being tried for being afraid. Bob objects to the term trial, but agrees yes, that's what it is. Daniel asks if there's a prosecutor and Bob tells him she's a damn good one. They call her "The Dragon Lady." "Who does she work for?" Daniel wants to know. The Universe, Bob tells him. They all are parts of the Universe to make sure nothing breaks down. The trial will last four days and examine nine days of Daniel's life. Daniel asks if nine days is a normal number. "Very concerned about normal, aren't you? Kind of cute," Bob says, though he disappoints Daniel by telling him he can't give him any details on what days they will be looking at. Daniel incorrectly assumes that he'll be found guilty or innocent. Bob says at worse he'll be sent back to Earth. Daniel asks if that just keeps happening, but Bob says that eventually the Universe will throw you away. Daniel asks if he's been to Earth before and Bob tells him he's approaching 20. He asks how many times Bob was on Earth. "Six." "I am the dunce of the universe," Daniel declares. Bob tells him that some people have been there 100 times, but he wouldn't want to hang out with them. Bob asks if Daniel is hungry and Daniel tells him he didn't get to finish breakfast before he had to leave so Diamond takes Daniel out to lunch.
When I saw Defending Your Life, I knew who Rip Torn was, though admittedly I think it was based more on his unusual name than any performance I could remember. Seeing him here was a revelation and this was before The Larry Sanders Show premiered and he became one of my idols with his Emmy-winning turn as the irreplaceable Artie. Later, I was even more fortunate to see him live on Broadway opposite the equally sublime Shirley Knight in Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta and though I'm not usually an autograph hound, I had to wait by the stage door afterward so I could meet Torn and have him sign my Playbill. However, the origin of my Rip Torn love began with his work as Bob Diamond in this Albert Brooks film. He deserved an Oscar nomination. He's riotously funny and, as he would show on Larry Sanders, he could get laughs just from the spin he placed on certain words. He also scored with the difficult task of explaining the exposition of how things work in Judgment City without it ever coming off as dry. He even gets to be comforting and touching when the moment is called for late in the film. I'm not saying Torn deserved a win but he turned in at least a 24-karat performance as Diamond.
Bob fills Daniel in on a few more details about the judgment process over their lunch, since Daniel proves to be quite inquisitive. Daniel learns that children who die don't have to defend themselves, they simply move on. Teenagers, on the other hand, are a different story. Diamond says they tried them for awhile, but the teens proved to be too rowdy, always damaged the tupas, so now they go elsewhere. Bob asks how Daniel likes his chicken and he admits it's delicious, but he wonders what Bob's eating, a brown, gristle-like substance that appears to have a small portion of gravy on it. Diamond likes Daniel's curiosity, but assures him he wouldn't like it, but asks if he wants to try it anyway. Daniel takes a bite and almost immediately spits it out. Diamond cackles, "Tastes a little like horseshit, huh?" Bob tells him that as you use more of your brain, you learn to manipulate your senses. "This tastes a lot different to me than it does to you," Diamond tells his client. Still partially gagging, Daniel asks, "This is what smart people eat?" Bob asks Daniel to tell him a bit about himself. Did he have problems? "Of course, doesn't everybody?" "Everybody on Earth anyway," Bob responds, then asks about charity, wondering if he gave much. Daniel immediately leaps to the conclusion that the amount he gave to charity will play a role in the verdict. Daniel supposes he could have given more. He insists he gave money to people on the street, but they never give you a receipt, but Bob tells him not to worry about it, but there was one person he was particularly cheap with over and over again. The statement puzzles Daniel until Bob points at him. "You." Diamond recommends that Daniel spend the rest of the day enjoying himself and relaxing. He even suggests checking out the Past Lives Pavilion where you can see who you were in previous lives. "Most people really enjoy it. Some it just makes nauseous," Bob laughs before telling him he'll see him tomorrow morning, but if he needs him just call anytime. "I never sleep," Bob says. "Never?" Daniel asks but before Daniel can get an answer, Diamond is waving goodbye. Daniel heads back to the Continental where Stan is greeting a new batch of arrivals and Daniel tosses his head back with disdain as if he's an upperclassmen looking down on all the freshmen who don't know how things work yet. He notes a sign near the elevator greetng a special class of newly arrived dead. During the ride up on the elevator, he sees announcements for two possible activities: One for a show on "The universe as it really is" at a planetarium and another hyping The Bomb Shelter, Judgment City's oldest comedy club. He decides to check out the stand up comic.
When I first saw Defending Your Life soon after it opened in 1991, I thought it was entertaining, but slight. In the intervening years, it only has grown in my estimation because not only is it funny, but it's touching and creates such an inviting concept, that you want to re-visit it again. It also contains one of the earliest examples of Meryl Streep showing her comic side. Defending Your Life followed the disaster of She-Devil and the seriocomic Postcards From the Edge (though 1986's Heartburn did have many comic moments), but this marked her first flat-out comedy (or good comedy, I should say) and she's having a blast, as well she should. Her character, Julia, hooks up with Daniel as they both go to the comedy club. Julia actually spots Daniel first, as both listen to the awful comedian (Roger Behr). The comic asks an old man in the front row how he died and the man says he was in a coma. "How long?" The man doesn't know. "Elvis — alive or dead?" the comic asks. The man answers alive. "Long coma." He continues with more lame jokes, then he spots Daniel and asks him how he died. "On stage — like you." The comedian invites Daniel on stage, but he declines, which the comic says he understands, "because this is hard work." Julia cracks up and comes over to his table, believing she recognizes Daniel, who immediately charms her with more jokes. She suggests a walk and the two make plans to exit, but the comedian pleads with them to stay for his song, so they do. The song, unfortunately, is a play on "That's Life" with lyrics to the effect "That was life/and that's how you lived it/and now you little brains/have to defend it/" That's enough for them and Julia and Daniel do indeed leave. As they leave the club, Julia tells Daniel that he carries himself very stiffly. "Leave me alone — I'm dead," Daniel whines. They get to know the basic facts of each other's lives: Julia was married with two children, a 7-year-old daughter and an adopted 9-year-old boy. "I bet they miss you," Daniel says. Julia admits to missing them, but she's OK with it, saying they make it that way so they aren't distracted and concentrated on their work, but isn't this flirtation a distraction, Julia suggests. Not to mention being able to eat all you want, Daniel adds. "Isn't it the best?" Julia exclaims. "Six months ago I had a dream about a place where I ate all I wanted." Daniel asks if she thinks she foresaw this but she says no, she thinks she was just dreaming of Sizzler. Julia asks about Daniel's wife. He says they married too young and she was too pretty for him. It's his theory that you should only marry someone just attractive enough to turn you on. Any extra causes problem Daniel asks how many days they are examining of Julia's and she says four, so Daniel guesses that means she's moving on. Julia says Sam thinks so. Daniel asks who that is and is shocked to learn she calls her defense attorney by his first name. "His brain is so big," she tells him. "I just left a world with penis envy, now it's brain envy," Daniel complains. "How big is it?" She outstretches her hands. They arrive at Julia's hotel and Daniel finds himself shocked by its lavishness. It's called The Majestic and it looks like it. She asks where he's staying. "Obviously at the place for people that weren't very generous and didn't adopt anybody. I'm at the Continental. Come over one day; we'll paint it." He asks if she wants to go to dinner the next night, but she says she can't. Daniel can't believe she already has plans. Sam is holding a small dinner party with some really smart people and invited her. "Please don't tell me you're sleeping with your defense attorney. I know on some level that is wrong." She laughs and tells him to call her after that so they can talk. As she goes up to her room, the intercom announces that they are now serving champagne and caviar in the Blue Room. In the classic romantic comedies of old, people fell in love at insanely fast speeds, but it's believable here. You wouldn't necessarily think chemistry when the names Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks come up, but they have it. The romantic strand also sets up another aspect of the film that makes it so universal: the idea of how inconveniently timed falling in love can be sometimes.
The next morning, Bob Diamond greets Daniel as he gets off his tram at the Judgment Center. He asks him how his night went and Daniel giddily tells him he met a girl, which tickles Bob. Two days ago, Daniel had been crushed by a bus, now he's in love. He then leads Daniel into his courtroom. In addition to Bob and Daniel, the other players are gathered: the prosecutor Lena "The Dragon Lady" Foster (Lee Grant) and the two judges (George D. Wallace and Lillian Lehman).
While defending your life — even with the slight risk that you will be thrown away if you've been unable to overcome your fears after too many unsuccessful tries — would seem a daunting prospect, the trial itself even provides an enticing concept as both the prosecution and the defense present videos of scenes from your past, which one of the judges has been told is a similar experience to 3D. Imagine what that would be like to actually see yourself at a younger age going through previous experiences, even if they might be painful ones. It's even possible to re-visit events that you saw as an infant in a way more realistic than any home movie could ever be. It's another example of the concepts that Brooks fabricated for Defending Your Life that are downright ingenious. That he was able to spin these fantastic ideas in the form of a romantic comedy really seems more astounding today than when I first saw it in 1991 — and even without the romantic element, it's damn funny. The trial actually plays like a courtroom scene, with Lena going after him for not standing up to a playground bully and Diamond defending him for using restraint by showing him as a baby when his crying stopped his father from getting physical in a fight with his mother. Lena asks if that's what he was doing on the playground, or if he wanted to hit the kid back. He says of course he wanted to strike back, but he chose restraint. Diamond tries to show the generosity of Daniel's spirit, even as a child, by showing when he took the blame for a friend who always was in trouble at school and forgot his art supplies, giving him his and saying he lost his. Lena undermines this by showing later when he caves to his dad by telling him that the other boy really lost his and he was just covering for him. Diamond tries to make the case that Daniel had such a bond with his dad that he couldn't lie to him. "Did we ever stop to think that this young boy had a bond with his father? I don't think it had anything to do with the friend. I just think Daniel couldn't lie to his dad. That's all," Diamond tells the court. Daniel figures that sounds good and nods, forgetting that his whole life has been documented. "You're nodding, Mr. Miller," Lena says. "Does that mean you agree with Mr. Diamond?" Fortunately, this isn't a court of law with perjury counts because Daniel goes on to say "Oh, yes. I had a bond with my father. I pretty much never lied to him." An incredulous Lena spits back, "You never lied to your father? Would you like me to show you at least 500 examples?" Daniel tries to talk himself out of it, going on so long that Diamond finally steps in and says, "Psst, wrap it up." With the first day done, Diamond's initial assessment that Lena would "have a field day" with Daniel seems to be coming true and they haven't even entered scenes from his adulthood into evidence yet.
Since Daniel won't be able to see Julia after his first day in court, he wanders around downtown Judgment City until he finds a sushi bar and steps inside where he's greeted by one of its several overly exuberant chefs. Daniel orders a sake but after the man serving him asks him how many days they are looking at and he tells them nine and all the eatery's employees shout in unison, "NINE DAYS," the man suggests more sake. It does raise one of the questions I've always had about Defending Your Life (and part of what makes it so much more than the average comedy). If the point of the Universe is to keep getting smarter and you either move on or go back to Earth, how do you end up staying in Judgment City in essentially a bureauratic role such as Bob or Lena serves or as a sushi chef? Will they ever get the chance to move on or are they stuck in these jobs for eternity? When Daniel returns to the Continental, he gets a phone message from Julia asking him where he is and, with longing in her voice, telling him she misses him.
The second day of Daniel's trial springs an unhappy surprise as he arrives to find that Diamond couldn't make it and he has a substitute defender, Dick Stanley (Buck Henry). Daniel thinks this should be grounds for a mistrial since Stanley doesn't know anything about him, but Stanley begs to differ. "I use 51 percent of my brain, Mr. Miller. I know everything about you," Stanley tells him, though he adds, "I operate a little differently than Mr. Diamond." By operating differently, what Stanley means is that he barely says a word and never offers a defense the way Diamond does. Up first on day two, they examine a time when Daniel had just graduated college and had $10,000 to invest. A friend's father worked for Casio in its early days and recommended getting in before it took off. Daniel is skeptical, arguing that the Japanese are not a society that knows about precision so they'd know nothing about watchmaking. If his friend told him that the Germans were making a watch, then he'd be interested. As a result, he lost out on what would be worth $37.2 million today. Lena questions him as to what he did invest in and he admits it was cattle and as she asks what happened to them, he replies, "I never did get a straight answer. Something about their teeth falling out." The judges ask Stanley if he'd like to counter, but he says he's fine, puzzling Daniel even further. Lena next shows a time when he prepped for a job interview with his wife (Susan Walters) about how he wouldn't accept less than $65,000 a year in salary. Of course, when he goes to the real thing the next day, the interviewer (Michael Durrell) offers $49,000 and Daniel immediately says yes. Lena grills Daniel about why he didn't stand up to his boss the way he did with his wife the night before. "First of all, it wasn't my wife, it was a man in a a suit and the suit had a odor and the odor said $49,000." Stanley interjects, "I like that very much." Daniel, still stunned by Stanley's relative silence, sarcastically says, "Oh, you are good."
After that day's trial, Daniel spots Julia in the crowded halls of the Judgment Center and she's as excited to see him as he is to see her. She's surrounded by what appears to be one of her judges and a tall man who when Daniel gets to the group Julia introduces as Sam (Leonard O. Turner). Sam tells Daniel that Julia has told him a lot about him, but Daniel says Julia doesn't know that much about him. Julia reminds him that Sam uses 56% of his brain. Sam says he heard Dick Stanley was defending Daniel today and sings his praises as a very smart man, adding that he's quiet. "You could say that," Daniel replies. Sam excuses himself and Daniel and Julia make plans for the evening. Julia wants to go to the Past Lives Pavilion, not only because it sounds neat but because she's heard they have the best hot dogs there. Daniel has hesitations, but agrees to go. In the Past Lives Pavilion, the film contains one of the funniest film cameos of all time, but as has been a subject circulating in my writings recently and a piece that Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for Salon concerning whether future generations will get the pop culture references on The Simpsons. While the person in the cameo certainly retains their recognizability, even 20 years out what makes the appearance funny isn't as well-known as it was back then. I wonder in another 20 years if that aspect — what makes the cameo so brilliant and funny — will be lost. Jokes tend not to work if you have to explain why they are funny. Are movies going to need to come with something like Cliff Notes for full appreciation? Even if they did, I doubt Defending Your Life would make the cut for a study guide. As you might expect, Daniel and Julia have vastly different reactions to seeing who they were in the past: Julia thinks it's a hoot as she sees she was some sort of knight leading a battle on his trusted steed while Daniel grimaces in horror as he sees he was an African running in terror from some unseen animal on the attack. He asks Julia who she was. "I'm Prince Valiant. Who are you?" "Dinner."
The downside to movies such as Defending Your Life in which you find yourself becoming more enamored each time you see it over the course of many years (especially if you happen to be a writer who tends to celebrate the anniversaries of signficant movies on his blog), you have a tendency to want to recount everything to your readers, simply because seeing the film has so excited you that you want to tell your audience about every favorite moment, every memorable line. Now, Defending Your Life isn't a spoiler-heavy film, but there's no need for me to to delve into the rest of the plot's details, not only because I imagine many of you haven't seen the film but more importantly because I'd like to discuss overall aspects of the film before this piece grows any more insanely long than it already has. I do have one last piece for the movie that I do feel compelled to mention. When Daniel demands to know why Diamond missed the second day of the trial, Bob tells him he wouldn't understand. Daniel tells him not to treat him like a moron. "I was trapped near the inner circle of thought," Diamond tells him. "I don't understand," Daniel replies.
While Albert Brooks' great mind gets the credit for the idea of Judgment City, it's the work of people behind-the-scenes who brought it to such wonderful life. Production designer Ida Random, art director Richard Reynolds and set decorator Linda DeScenna with the aid of their crews realized Brooks' vision and played a large role in making Judgment City look like such an appealing place. Random's resume proves quite eclectic, earning an Oscar nomination (which she shared with DeScenna) for Rain Man as well as serving as production designer on films as diverse as The War of the Roses, Hoffa, Wyatt Earp, Kevin Costner's The Postman and two of the Fast and Furious films. Reynolds has gained the new title of "digital set designer" for films such as Avatar and Minority Report, but his credits for art direction or production design are relatively few outside Defending Your Life. In addition to the Oscar nomination she shared with Random for Rain Man, DeScenna has been nominated four other times for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, The Color Purple and Toys. Those sets wouldn't look half as enticing as they do if it weren't for the great cinematography of D.P. Allen Daviau, one of the best in the business. Daviau received an Oscar nomination in 1991, but it was for the great-looking Bugsy, not Defending Your Life. He also earned nominations for three Spielberg films: E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. His fifth nomination came for Avalon. For some reason, Daviau has sort of dropped off the radar for the most part. His output since the early 1990s has slowed and usually has been on films you've never heard about. The most recent notable movie he served as d.p. on was 2004's Van Helsing.
Kudos to one other particularly important behind-the-scenes player contributing to the success of the Defending Your Life go to composer Michael Gore for his marvelous score which hits the right notes at the right times, be it comic or touching, but always infectious. Gore has quite a track record as it is, providing the great score for Terms of Endearment and winning two Oscars for Fame, for its original score and its title song. He also wrote the music for most of the songs in the film, including the Oscar-nominated "Out Here on My Own" whose lyrics were provided by his sister Lesley of "It's My Party" fame.
I've already sung the praises of the delightful Rip Torn and could go on doing so for quite some time, but I figure this actress named Meryl Streep hardly ever gets any praise, so I'd toss her a bone. It's not unusual now, but in 1991, to see her play such a relaxed, comic role truly was a relevation. It wasn't a surprise that she could do it well, it just was remarkable to see her go down that road at all. You believe she's falling for Albert Brooks' Daniel but he deserves as much credit as she does. While Daniel worries about details elsewhere, when he's with her, everything's OK and he's completely charming and funny. The cliche goes that women love men who make them laugh (Oh, but if only that were an across-the-board truism). Even when his insecurities do pop up, as when Lena Foster happens to be eating at the same restaurant that Daniel and Julia are and Daniel proposes bolting, Julia still stands by him, though when she excuses herself to go the bathroom she does tell him, "I pray to God when I get back, you've changed." When she passes Lena's table though, she makes a point of telling her what a great guy Daniel is.
That chemistry between Brooks and Streep does come off as very real and a big reason for that is that Brooks doesn't get the credit he deserves as an actor. I think he's perceived as a comedian who makes movies, but when you look at his body of work, not only in the films he's directed himself but in the ones where he's just been an actor-for-hire, Brooks does not repeat the same persona each time, as compared to Woody Allen who usually stays rather close to the same area in the characters he plays. Compare the roles he created for himself in the films he directed from 1981-1991. In Modern Romance, Brooks really takes a chance by playing a character as neurotic and obsessively jealousy as Robert Cole. He risks alienating the audience by making his character do things that make you want to hate him. Brooks tells a story that after he made it he received a phone call from Stanley Kubrick wanting to know how he did it because Kubrick had always wanted to make a film about jealousy. David Miller in Lost in America really had little in common with Robert Cole. He was an arrogant yuppie, obsessed with the trappings of upward mobility and happily married until his world gets tossed asunder because he doesn't get the specific promotion he expected. Superficially, Daniel Miller here resembles David Howard, except that he settles easily and avoids conflict. When you add in Brooks' roles in movies he didn't write or direct such as his great Oscar-nominated turn as the ethical reporter in love with his platonic friend in Broadcast News as well as roles in good movies such as My First Mister and Out of Sight and the best part hidden under old age makeup, in the misfire Critical Care. Don't forget, before he started making his own movies, he had a significant part in Scorsese's Taxi Driver too. Brooks may be one of the funniest men on the planet, but he also can act.
As I've said so far in this remembrance, what really bowled me over in this return visit to Judgment City is how much better it plays now than it did even in its original release 20 years ago. Perhaps it's the cultural climate, where ignorance seems to have become something that is lauded as a positive and intellectuals are freely mocked as "elitist" and somehow not "real Americans." (Using more of your brain has even resurfaced as a plot point in the new Bradley Cooper thriller Limitless.) Now, when Rip Torn talks about all the "little brains" on Earth, it seems sadly true and while you might not want to go rushing toward the afterlife, the concept of being welcomed by people who use more of their brains seems quite pleasing, even if that means you'll just be stuck as a hotel porter in Judgment City. That could be quite pleasant if you snag a job at the Majestic. Hell, which sounds more enticing — watching the horrors of Japan, Libya, the Gulf Coast, etc., as our political leaders in both parties can't accomplish a damn thing (Man, how many of them even hit 3% of brain usage?) or somehow getting trapped in the inner circle of thought?
Throughout the history of cinema, many films have served the purpose of what you would call conversation starters, but how many light romantic comedies have fallen into that realm the way Defending Your Life does? Remember, it pre-dates all those Charlie Kaufman and Kaufman-esque films as well. It contains ideas on a philosphical level, but doesn't fudge it up by tossing religion in the mix, and still has time to throw in the timeless story of falling in love, if not with the wrong person, but at the wrong time. As he opens his heart to Julia, Daniel confesses, "You know these screenings are so tough for me. And yet when I see you I instantly feel OK... I don't think it has anything to do with me, that's what worries me. I think you're doing it." Julia wants to know what she's doing. "I'm not sure, but I always read that you had to be OK with yourself first before you could be OK with another person," Daniel tells her. "Now I feel OK with you, but I don't know how OK I was with myself before I met you, so maybe you're making me OK." Julia has fallen for him too, but she's not above admitting, "You're not that OK." Daniel laments that it appears they'll just have these few days together and they've found a love that eluded them on Earth, "Where do we find it? In the pit stop. Thanks God."
"We have nothing to fear but fear itself," FDR famously said. Maybe he knew something we don't. It's almost comforting to think that if there is an afterlife that this would be how it works, instead of all the scary nonsense of pits of fire for the bad or heavenly choirs. Of course, Defending Your Life doesn't show you what those other destinations for smarter people are, but just the concept that the universe has a point at all and that the point is to get smarter soothes an old secular cynic such as myself. It doesn't hurt that Defending Your Life also happens to be damn funny. As the years pass, I think this film's reputation will keep growing, unless all of us little brains just keep getting stupider which may be the greatest fear I still have to overcome.
Labels: 90s, Albert Brooks, Awards, Buck Henry, Costner, Kubrick, Larry Sanders, Movie Tributes, Oscars, Rip Torn, Scorsese, Sondheim, Spielberg, Streep, Streisand, Television, The Simpsons, Theater, Woody
-- Robin Leslie Jacobson, writer/editor (not in film)