What is it about our favorite films that make us cling to them so dearly? Maybe because when we "adopt" a film, we hope that the film’s vision or philosophy becomes our own. We pass along our "favorite films," sometimes to complete strangers, as shorthand of how we would like to see the world and ourselves. The reason for this meditative diatribe is that one of my "favorite" movies has just made it to DVD. I consider myself extremely lucky to have the opportunity to write about "Defending Your Life" and share my affection for this movie, that I might convince just one person to watch this slyly optimistic film.
Albert Brooks writes, directs and stars as Daniel Miller, a late 30s advertising executive living a lonely existence in Los Angeles. He’s just dropped $39,000 for his new convertible BMW, yet he’s already dissatisfied with it before he’s even driven it off the lot (he thinks his car looks like a "turd"). Taking his latest toy out for a spin, he pops in a Barbra Streisand CD. "Something’s Coming" fills the air, much to the consternation of other drivers on the road ("Do we all have to hear that?"). A momentary distraction, an oncoming bus and in an instant, a dazed and confused Daniel is ushered onto an amusement park-style tram, headed to Judgment City.
Judgment City sure feels like Heaven. The weather is always sunny and warm. Visitors stroll about in comfortable looking terry cloth "tupas." The food is the best tasting you’ve ever had and you can eat as much as you want without any side effects whatsoever. The only hitch is your stay lasts five days and you must defend your life.
As explained by Bob Diamond, Daniel’s defender (Rip Torn, pitch-perfect here), our journey through the universe is one of conquering fear. Daniel has to prove he has overcome his fears enough to progress to the next level of existence. If he can’t, it’s back to Earth for another go around. As there is a defender, there is also a prosecutor (Lee Grant), as well as a judge (in this case, two). The evidence is presented as "clips" from his life, with both sides arguing how Daniel acted bravely or cowardly. Yet even the afterlife contains the possibility for change, as Daniel falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep sans accent), another "defendant" who wows her trial with scenes of heroism and fearlessness. For Daniel, the lions’ den he must face may be within his own heart.
Now, I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of Albert Brooks. I can take his neurotic schtick in measured doses, but most of the time his whining and kvetching thinly disguised as examinations of the modern male just grate. The shining exception is "Defending Your Life." Yes, Daniel still has that know-it-all vibe, like Brooks’ characters in "Modern Romance," or "Lost in America." However, when faced with the moments when he should have said "no" instead of "yes," when he should shouted instead of whispered, there is an instant sympathetic connection to those moments in our lives that we took the paths of least resistance.
Before I make out the film to be a Bergman-esque dirge, Brooks balances the drama with plenty of laughs. The film is not an out and out knee slapper, but the strongest chuckles register in the comparisons between Judgment City and middle class American life. With exteriors that look like a cross between Dallas and Orange County, both have buffet restaurants, stand-up clubs ("The Bomb Shelter – Judgment City’s oldest comedy club!") complete with mediocre comedians, hotels with different levels of service (guess which kind Daniel is booked in?) and "the Past Lives Pavilion," where you can view your previous incarnations. (Perhaps dated now, but the film’s best sight gag occurs here.) Brooks has never been more vulnerable, Streep has never been more relaxed and I guarantee their journey is worth taking.
Warner Home Video’s technical expertise is in full force here. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer far surpasses the laserdisc in clarity and resolution. Colors are a bit muted, but solidly rendered. Deep blacks contribute to excellent detail delineation, down to counting the peas and carrots on Daniel’s plate. Fleshtones are natural looking, even in the few night scenes. The image is smooth at all times with no digital or compression artifacts.
The Dolby Digital surround soundtrack exhibits good dynamic range and even a little LFE kick in some of the musical passages. Surround activity is occasional but pleasing. Given this is a comedy and the most important aspect of any comedy is hearing the jokes clearly and distinctly, the dialogue does not disappoint with ample levels and clear reproduction.
The only supplemental materials consist of a theatrical trailer and some cast notes. The trailer, also presented in 1.85 anamorphic, is quite witty and sells the film exactly on its merits (it does give away some crucial scenes, so I suggest not watching it until after seeing the feature). No use mentioning it now, but a commentary track by Brooks would have made the disc priceless.
For my summation argument on the pull of this film, I’d like to quote Bob Diamond, as he explained to Daniel how we advance: "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 and buddy, you’re in for the ride of your life."
Buddy, give "Defending Your Life" a spin and you’re in for a special treat.