Writer/director/star Albert Brooks posits an idea of the afterlife in Defending Your Life that, while humorously clever and completely fantastic, never veers from the credible. Dead from a car accident (he was messing with the radio), Dan Miller (Brooks) finds himself in a scarily efficient vision of purgatory known as Judgment City. A prosecutor (the wonderfully biting Lee Grant) and a defense attorney (Rip Torn, in his element) are assigned to put Dan on trial and decide if he will be "moving on" or "going back." Their evidence comes in the form of film clips exhibited in the courtroom. The prosecutor quickly gains the edge due to the number of hilariously bad decisions Miller has made, almost always based on fear.
But the trial takes days, so Daniel must wait. It is pleasant enough -- the gowns are flattering and the food is tasty. Even his room resembles that of a quality motel. Making the wait even more tolerable is Julia (Meryl Streep), whom he falls for (and she for him), but who is almost too good to be true. Unlike Dan's trial, Julia's prosecutor and defender keep going on and on about how wonderful she is. Her accommodations are also considerably more luxurious, than his spartan digs. Also of this feeds Dan's insecurities; will they have to be separated since she is obviously moving on and his fate is still unsure?
Brooks always stars in his own films and he has a charming, sad sack quality that invariably elicits empathy. His movies -- which include Real Life, Modern Romance, Mother, and The Muse -- generally showcase his foibles and make him out to be a lovable loser; he is Woody Allen without the manic side. (Writer/director James L. Brooks -- no relation, Brooks' birth name is Einstein, which he changed for obvious reasons -- used these qualities to full effect by casting Albert as ace reporter Aaron Altman in Broadcast News, winning Albert an Oscar nod in the process.)
But Defending Your Life has one thing usually missing from an Albert Brooks film -- a completely satisfying ending. He is known for coming up with clever ideas that somehow manage to lose steam along the way. This is not the case with Defending Your Life. Dan's trial, and his discoveries about himself, pay off triumphantly in a romantic action sequence.
I've been a fan of Brooks for a long time and Defending Your Life is the movie I most enjoy in that purely "sit back and enjoy it" way (I like Real Life better but for different, more cerebral, reasons), and is probably the most easily accessible to newcomers. His inspired screenplay (so far his only one without usual partner Monica Johnson), personal neuroses, romantic subplot, and style of direction click together here in a way that they haven't before, or since.