Defending Your Life (1991): Albert Brooks Comedy, Starring Meryl Streep and Lee Grant

Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, which a studio (Warners) distributed, also boasts an independent spirit. It belongs to the life-after-death genre (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait).

However, whereas most filmmakers treat this subject comically and whimsically, Brooks turns earnest and, by his standards, conventional.

Brooks plays an L.A. yuppie, Daniel Miller, who crashes his new BMW convertible and dies. The movie is set in purgatory, Judgment City, which looks like the San Fernando Valley with manicured lawns, wrap around glass mini-skyscrapers, smiling people who greet everyone with “have a nice day.”

Daniel is put on trial with a defense attorney (Rip Torn) and a prosecutor (Lee Grant), who examine scenes from his life projected onscreen. Not surprisingly, they are mostly scenes of defeat, in which Daniel allowed himself to be shamed by a bully or failed to invest in a company that later became profitable. Daniel’s life was dominated by fear. If he can prove now that he has conquered fear, he will go on to a higher form of existence, in which humans use a larger portion of their brains. But if found guilty of cowardice, he’ll be sent back to Earth.

A new romance with a fearless person (Meryl Streep) is used to test whether Daniel has the courage to date, or be held back by fear.

The production, with crowds in hospital robes walking in the sterile corridors, is visually impressive. However, neither a comedy nor a morality tale, Defending Your Life is more like a long, earnest therapy session whose lesson, “seize the day,” is not complex enough a guiding motif for a full-length comedy. Brooks never specifies what’s wrong with being sent back to Earth. Why is it a failure