It's the Chair for You, Kid!
Every aspiring romantic-comedy screenwriter should be forced to watch Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life. This movie says more about love and the human condition than the last two-dozen such films I've suffered through. Best yet, it's written for adults.
Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a mid-level ad executive who treats himself to a BMW on his birthday (I can't recall, but I believe it's the "big four-oh"). Zipping along the streets of L.A., rocking out to Barbara Streisand (!), he accidentally smashes head-on into a bus. He comes to outside Judgment City, a cosmic way station for the recently deceased. He takes a shuttle bus to a hotel, plops into bed, and awakens the next day to learn that he's about to spend the next four days in a courtroom. His defender, a boisterous salesman-type named Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), must convince two judges that Daniel has evolved enough since his previous life to be reincarnated as a higher life form.
Representing The Universe is prosecutor Lena Foster (Lee Grant), a hard-edged professional who believes that the recurring theme of succumbing to fear in Daniel's life makes him ineligible to move on. Daniel sits in a swivel chair watching scenes from childhood and adulthood play out on a giant screen, while his lawyers argue over the meaning of "fear", "virtue", and "courage". From a bullying incident that left young Daniel petrified of confrontation, to his hesitancy to invest in the fledgling Casio corporation, Foster posits that the defendant has lived timidly and could use at least another trip back to Earth in order to correct this dilemma of the soul.
It's not all business in Judgment City, though. When he's not standing trial, Daniel tours a pleasant, green paradise that's full of all-you-can-eat gourmet restaurants, golf courses and comedy clubs. While watching a particularly awful stand-up (Roger Behr), he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a mother of two who died in her pool. They bond over jokes and a love of food. Julia's trial goes swimmingly compared to Daniel's, as she has half as many days to review as he does. Indeed, she seems destined for sainthood: Daniel sits in on one of Julia's sessions, in which she rushes out of a burning house with her two kids in tow; then runs back in to save the family pet.
I'll leave the outcome of Daniel's trial for you to discover. Defending Your Life is a movie that needs to be seen and appreciated. I love that Brooks uses his platform to explore big ideas at the same time he's delivering a warm, sharp comedy. The notion that there is no Hell is quite comforting; at the same time, Daniel's existential dread lies in the possibility of having to live life as a human being all over again. More to the point, he feels he's let himself and The Universe down by not seizing opportunities when he had them. This film is about hindsight, and recognizing key decisions in the smallest choices.
Unlike modern romantic comedies, the leads in this film are pleasant to watch. Streep is her most natural here, giggling and enjoying the freedom of knowing that she led a good life; Brooks is a nebbishy sad-sack whose humor barely masks the constant regret of not having gone after what he wanted when he was alive. Their courtship is believable and touching, and it's refreshing to see smart, older adults going on a date without some horrible, Three's-Company-style mishap throwing a third-act curve-ball into the mix. Daniel's late-developing issue with Julia stems from his insecurities, and watching him fight his demons made my heart soar.
Defending Your Life is a small movie with epic themes, a brilliant slice of self-examination in which the way a person sits in a chair (curled up and cozy versus the strapped-in look of someone who's about to be electrocuted) speaks volumes, and a seeming act of selflessness means nothing. I've seen fewer films with greater ambition, wit and spirit. I hope that when the people responsible for Bridesmaids face their final judgment, they're shown this movie and weep forever.