New Year. New movie. Actually, new old movie. It’s called, Defending Your Life, and unlike most of the films you'll read about here, this one was mainstreamed in a Woody Allen kind of way.
I was reminded of this film when I read that Albert Brooks was getting some Oscar buzz for his sobering and totally against-type performance as mobster Bernie Rose in Drive.
Long known for his comedic sensibility, Brooks, whose real name is Albert Einstein, wrote directed and starred in Defending Your Life. To my mind, it’s one of the best afterlife comedies out there, and there are a bunch of them.
Over the years Brooks' body of work has been under-appreciated and overlooked at awards time; the industry passing over his and other comedies that deserved to be recognized in favor of more serious fare. This has always puzzled me, as if anyone should know how hard it is to make a truly funny film, it's a filmmaker.
Why? Because ‘Funny’ is no laughing matter. You're either born with the funny gene, or you're not, Knowing what works, and what doesn't is instinctive, as is timing and delivery. Just ask Neil Simon, who built a whole scene around the subject in 1975’s The Sunshine Boys. Who can forget ex-vaudevillian Willie Clark explaining “funny” to his agent nephew?
Words with a 'K' in it are funny.
Alka-Seltzer is funny.
Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a 'K'.
L's are not funny. M’s are not funny.
Cupcake is funny.
And Brooks is funny, whether he’s writing, directing or acting in one of his or anyone else's comedies.
Defending Your Life is one of, if not his best. The dialogue, you should excuse the expression, is dead on, the casting, made in heaven, including the so-called "bit" players, and a surprise cameo by – well, if I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise.
What I can tell you is that it’s the story of an average Joe named Daniel Miller who hasn't lived up to his mother’s, ex-wife’s or own expectations, although he’s making what many would consider to be a good living. How good? Good enough to buy himself a BMW convertible for his birthday. Maybe not the top of the line model, but a BMW none-the-less.
We meet him in the conference room of the ad agency where, after thanking his co-workers for their gifts and birthday wishes, he picks up his new ride and takes it out for a spin. Popping Barbra Streisand’s Broadway album into the car’s CD player, he is soon singing along with Babs as she belts out West Side Story’s “Something’s Coming.”
That “something” turns out to be a bus, and before Daniel can say, “What the..?” our boy has kissed today good-bye and jettisoned from L.A. to Judgment City, where, dazed and confused, he is shuttled to the Continental: a no frills hotel that, were it not for a few signs here and there (i.e. “Welcome Kiwanis Dead”), could be mistaken for a down-to-earth Holiday Inn.
Is Judgment City Brooks’ idea of Heaven? Not exactly. More like a way station that, like the Continental, looks comfortably familiar. But, as someone once said, looks can be deceiving, and it doesn't take long for Daniel to figure out that he’s not in Kansas (well, L.A.), any more.
The good news? Being dead isn't half bad. Nothing hurts, everything’s free, there’s plenty to see and do and the food is fantastic. Better yet, you can eat all you want and not get fat―if you can find the time to eat it, because the bad news is, you're going to be pretty busy defending your life.
Brooks’ version of the hereafter Is devoid of any religious references or connotations. There are no cherubs relaxing on clouds, no devils or angels, no Higher Power. In his world, life-after-life is a process, and Judgment City is one of several processing centers in the universe, responsible for examining the lives of half of the United States’ newly deceased (some 2,500 souls) a day.
Its court system is a well-oiled machine, designed not to convict or punish, but to weed out the fearful and elevate the fearless. Daniel, like all new arrivals, must prove to the court that in life, he not only conquered his fears but learned from them, for, as his court-appointed attorney, Bob Diamond explains, fear is like "a giant fog that sits on your brain and blocks everything: real feelings, true happiness, and real joy." If you haven't faced your fears, you can't move on. And if you can't move on, you have to head back to earth for another go. It's the old "If at first you don't succeed" thing.
Daniel: So what do you do? Do you just keep going back until you get it right?
Diamond: Well, you don't keep going back. Eventually they throw you away.
Daniel: Have I been to earth before?
Diamond: Oh yeah.
Daniel: How many times?
Diamond: Approaching twenty.
Daniel: Is that a lot?
Diamond: I was there six.
Daniel: Oh my God. So I'm the dunce of the universe.
Diamond: Don't be silly. We have people who have been there a hundred times. I wouldn't want to hang out with any of them, but I've seen them.
And so it goes. The banter was never better.
Bob Diamond, as played with great panache by Rip Torn, is a bundle of contradictions: one moment the gregarious upbeat and jovial cheerleader, the next, a pompous and condescending elitist who seems to relish pointing out Daniel’s inadequacies. It’s easy to do, given the fact that Diamond uses between 48% of his brain, while Daniel, like all new arrivals or “little brains”,uses only 3%-to-5% of his.
After flipping through Daniel's file, Diamond realizes that he'll need every kilowatt of his brainpower to prove that his client is ready to move on. It doesn't help that he'll be facing Lena Foster in court, a hard-as-nails prosecutor hell-bent on winning. "We call her 'the dragon lady'" he tells his wary charge, as he lays out the trial's when, where, why's and wherefores of what lies ahead.
After a bunch of lunch, Diamond urges his client to forget his troubles, come on, get happy, and head into town for a little R&R. A poster in the hotel's elevator prompts Daniel to visit The Bomb Shelter, "Judgment City's oldest comedy club", where he meets and falls instantly in love with another newbee by the name of Julia.
As played by Meryl Streep, Julia is everything Daniel is not, she is confident, light hearted, warm, generous, heroic and adored by all, including her attorney, prosecutor and the judges who will be deciding her fate. That she is as crazy about Daniel as he is of her is somewhat of a puzzlement, but what the heck ―it’s a movie, and he’s kind of lovable in a sweetly neurotic kind of way.
Their courtship provides Brooks-the-writer with numerous opportunities to get Daniel out of the courtroom and into the city, for a visit to the Past Lives Pavilion ("Where you see some of the people you've been before"), dinner at Italian restaurant with the longest spaghetti in recorded history, and a look inside the Majestic,Julia’s four-star hotel.
Even a little brain like Daniel can see that the Continental bares little resemblance to the Majestic, where they serve caviar and champagne “in the blue room” and place little chocolate swans on your pillow when they turn down your covers for the night. Where are you staying?” asks Julia innocently. “The Continental”, he replies. “Come over and we'll paint it.”
As time goes on, it becomes even more apparent to Daniel that theirs is an ill-fated romance, for while Julia is all but assured of moving ahead, he will most certainly be heading back to the future. But hey, it’s a comedy, which means there’s a good chance that despite the odds, the star-crossed lovers will ‘live’ happily ever after in the everafter.
If the ending comes as no surprise, the stops along the way will. Defending Your Life is loaded with ridiculously witty and incredibly clever quips, signs, business and banter that will keep you smiling to the very end.
In the film's comedy club sequence, the resident comic― who is bombing big-time, tries to engage the audience with a little interaction. His questions ("How long were you in a coma?" and "How do you like Judgment City so far?") reminded me of pick-up lines, each being the hereafter equivelant to "What's your sign?" Spotting Daniel – who is, by far, one of the younger members in the crowd, he asks the inevitable question― "How'd you die?" Daniel's response: "On stage, like you."
In real life, Brook’s dad, comedian Harry Parke―known to radio listeners as Greek Restaurant Owner Parkyakarkus (park your carcass) on the Eddie Cantor Show, literally died on stage at a Friar’s Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. After finishing his routine, he sat back in his seat, suffered a fatal heart attack, and slumped over into Milton Berle’s lap. Realizing that something was terribly wrong, Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house. Thinking it was part of the act, the audience laughed at what they believed was the punch line. It was only after Berle made a second frantic plea that two physicians raced to the stage, but were unable to revive the fallen comedian.