Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 11, 2021)
While never a prolific filmmaker, Albert Brooks used to write and direct a new movie every few years. However, as of January 2021, it appears that 2005’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World may represent his swan song behind the camera, as it seems unlikely the now 73-year-old Brooks will get back into that swing of things after 16 years.
For Brooks’ fourth of seven directorial efforts, we head to 1991’s Defending Your Life. Here Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a Los Angeles advertising executive.
When Daniel gets distracted behind the wheel of his new BMW, we winds up in a car crash. This doesn’t end well for him, as he fails to survive the accident.
Daniel heads to the afterlife, represented by Judgment City. There he needs to re-evaluate his existence and defend the choices he made.
Daniel can either plead his case successfully and move “onward”, or he can fail and get sent back to Earth to try again. Along the way, he meets free-spirited fellow recently deceased person Julia and finds himself forced to reassess a life of choices.
Though I think Brooks possesses immense comedic talent, I admit I never quite fell in love with his movies. His work ranged from pretty good to pretty awful, but I think his films don’t always quite capitalize on his skills.
Which seems a bit odd because like Woody Allen, Brooks tends to always play the “Albert Brooks Character” in his movies. Given the fact he approaches his different roles in essentially the same manner, I’d expect Brooks to become more self-realized as a filmmaker.
The problem may stem from Brooks’ need to give us something more “substantial” than just laughs. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with comedies that aspire to greater meaning, but there’s also nothing wrong with movies that just go for the guffaws.
When Life opts for basic comedy, it delights. The flick enjoys a terrific concept, and Brooks explores various aspects of his particular sense of the afterlife in a bunch of clever, creative ways.
As such, Life remains pretty entertaining from start to finish. The film examines many interesting concepts and Brooks takes fine advantage of these.
However, Brooks’ stabs at emotion and meaning tend to fall flat, partly because these seem tacked on and gratuitous. We simply don’t need anything deep from this flick, as a comedic tale of a bureaucratic/legalistic afterlife seems like enough.
It doesn’t help that Brooks absolutely squanders Streep. Julia exists as little more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and even Streep’s immense talents can’t develop the role into anything more substantial than a basic plot device.
Because that really becomes Julia’s only purpose. Beyond “chipper and happy”, she comes with no real personality, and poor Streep finds herself with little to other than laugh at Brooks’ every utterance.
Why bother to hire someone of Streep’s skills to play such an insubstantial role? Any actor who looks pretty and giggles on cue could play this part, so it feels frustrating to see Streep wasted.
Despite that major misfire, I still like Life, as it comes with more than enough wit and cleverness to sustain us. Though it sags at times, the movie becomes a fairly winning affair overall.