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Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn
Albert Brooks
In an afterlife way station, recently deceased Daniel literally needs to defend his life choices.
Rated PG.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 111 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 3/30/2021

• Conversation With Writer/Director/Actor Albert Brooks and Filmmaker Robert Weide
• Interviews With Writer/Director/Actor Albert Brooks and Actors Lee Grant and Rip Torn
• “Spending Time in Judgment City” Featurette
• Trailer
• Booklet


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Defending Your Life: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1991)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 8, 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 do 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.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus C+

Defending Your Life appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though not a great-looking movie, the transfer appeared to replicate the source.

Sharpness was generally fine. Occasional signs of softness crept in at times, but these remained modest, so most of the flick came across with acceptable definition.

No signs of jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, and the image lacked edge haloes. With a good layer of grain, I didn’t fret about noise reduction, and print flaws remained absent.

Mainly made up of blues and ambers, the palette leaned a little cold, and the transfer reproduced these in an appropriate manner. They lacked vivacity most of the time, but that seemed to stem from design choices.

Blacks were dark and dense, while shadows showed positive delineation. A product of its era, this image worked fine given the source.

As for the film’s DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack, it also worked nicely for its vintage. Given the movie’s ambitions, the mix didn’t shoot for much, but it added a little zest to the proceedings.

Music showed good stereo presence, and the various channels contributed reasonable engagement to the sides. Given the focus on dialogue, the track didn’t attempt much more than ambience, but with some scenes – like those on vehicles or in restaurants – added decent involvement.

Audio quality also seemed appropriate. Speech was reasonably natural and concise, while music showed acceptable pep and clarity.

Effects brought us accurate enough material. This became a wholly acceptable track for a movie from 1991.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD version? The DVD went with a stereo track only, so the addition of surrounds made this a more engaging mix, and the lossless nature added warmth.

The visuals came across as cleaner and better defined. The DVD felt mediocre, so this turned into a good upgrade.

Whereas the DVD only included the movie’s trailer - which reappears here – we get a few other materials as well. First comes a November 2020 Conversation with Writer/Director/Actor Albert Brooks and Filmmaker Robert Weide.

During this 28-minute, seven-second program, we hear about Brooks’ development of the flick and his ambitions, story/character areas, themes, cast and performances, photography, art direction and effects and music. I wish Brooks had done a commentary, but this still turns into an insightful view of the film.

Taken from archival sources, we find a compilation of Interviews with Writer/Director/Actor Albert Brooks and Actors Rip Torn and Lee Grant. In this 12-minute, 23-second compendium, we get notes about various aspects of the production and how each participated.

Shot for the US talk show Crook & Chase, this becomes a fairly general look at the movie. Though not especially strong, it still gives us a decent collection of period notes.

Recorded in November 2020, Spending Time in Judgment City goes for 21 minutes, 41 seconds and brings notes from theologian/critic Donna Bowman. She gets into Brooks’ view of the afterlife and some interpretation of the film. Bowman offers an interesting take on the flick.

We finish with a booklet that includes credits, art, photos and an essay from filmmaker Ari Aster. It adds value to the set.

When it attempts to bring a morality fable, Defending Your Life drags. However, more than enough of the movie boasts fine comedy to make it a mostly entertaining affair. The Blu-ray comes with generally positive picture and audio as well as a decent array of bonus features. I wish we got more supplements, but this nonetheless offers a pretty good release for a pretty good movie.

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