Pandemic Pictures: Defending Your Life (1991)



Being in self-isolation for the past couple of weeks has allowed my natural couch potato tendencies to flourish. As such, I have been watching a massive amount of television.  So much that I can almost hear an echo from my past of my mother saying, “STOP WATCHING TV!”  Ah, memories…

My husband and I have been viewing a veritable pu-pu platter of programing.  We may start the day with an episode of Hoarders, followed by some CNN.  After I can’t listen to the same thing for the fourth time from Jake Tapper, we may move on to HGTV or the Food Network.  We have even been watching episodes of Shaun the Sheep on Amazon Prime (don’t judge me, this is my quarantine).  However, every evening, we sit down to watch a movie or documentary.

Since I have my husband chained to the apartment, I can now force him to watch some of my favorite forgotten films.  When I say “forgotten”, I don’t mean some classic Ingrid Bergman film from 1948, I am talking about 1990s stuff.  At least, that is what I have been doing for the last few days.  As I thought about it, I realized that these are great movies that should have a renaissance!  Therefore, I am doing my part.  For the next few weeks, I will be keeping you up-to-date with our evening viewing habits in an effort to have some great films remembered at a time when we all need a bit of escape.

Defending 1

Two days ago, I was taking a stroll around the 650 square foot apartment that we share, and I found myself looking at my bookcase.  My DVDs are in this bookcase along with books.  Front and center was a DVD that I received for Christmas and I had not yet had the opportunity to watch.  I was so excited to rediscover that I now owned this movie!  Immediately, I took it out, unwrapped it from the shrink wrap, and popped it into the DVD player.  The film: Defending Your Life.


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Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life

For those of you who are not familiar with this film, it is time to rent it from Amazon Prime or Apple.  Released in 1991, Defending Your Life stars Albert Brooks (who wrote and directed the film, as well) as Daniel Miller.  Daniel is an advertising executive in his early-40s who is celebrating his birthday by buying a new BMW.  He gets in the car to take a long drive and puts on a CD of Barbra Streisand singing songs from Broadway musicals.  Very aptly, the song she is singing is “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story.  As Daniel drives the streets of Los Angeles, he takes a corner and the CDs fall to the ground.  He leans down to pick them up and as he sits up he realizes that he is seconds away from hitting a large city bus. A moment later, Daniel is in the after-life.

To put you at ease, I have not ruined the movie for you by giving anything away.  First of all, this happens in the first five minutes of the film.  Second, if you read any synopsis of the film it will immediately tell you that Daniel is dead.


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Rip Torn, Albert Brooks, and Lee Grant in Defending Your Life

Daniel awakens in Judgment City, a sort of purgatory where a decision is made about what happens to your soul after you die.  Every person goes to Earth and attempts to get through his or her life without being ruled by fear.  If it is determined that you have overcome the fears that accompany a human existence, you can “move on”.  If not, you are sent back to Earth to try again.  The determination is made in a trial-like setting; there is a defender, a prosecutor, and two judges.  During this examination period, scenes from one’s life are shown to prove if one has overcome his/her fears.  All of this is explained to Daniel by his defender, played by a fantastic Rip Torn.

The evening before the examinations are to begin, Daniel goes to a comedy club and meets Julia (Meryl Streep).  She is fun, light-hearted, and not afraid to put herself out there, as opposed to Daniel who comes from the Woody Allen-school of neurosis.  During their few days in Judgment City, Daniel and Julia begin falling for each other in the most inconvenient time and place.

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Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life

There are so many things about this movie that are perfect.  Brooks’s humor is spot on and the cast verbally volleys with each other in the most entertaining ways.  Some of the best moments are in Daniel’s examination between his defender and the prosecutor, played by Lee Grant.  These two have a history and it is like watching Benedict and Beatrice trade barbs in Much Ado About Nothing minus the sexual tension.  Streep is sensational as always.  She is so often touted as such an amazing dramatic actress that one forgets how good she is in comedies.  She is the perfect complement to Brooks’s Daniel.  Their scenes together are so much fun! I dare you not to laugh hysterically when they go to the Past Lives Pavilion.

When the film came out in 1991, it did well and was positively reviewed.  Unfortunately, it has been mostly forgotten in the intervening years.  I think the reason for that may be that this is considered an Albert Brooks film and most people remember Broadcast News and Lost In America before they think about this one.

This was the first time I watched this movie in more than a decade, but it still was perfect.  I still laughed whole-heartedly throughout the film, and teared up at the ending.  During a pandemic, what more do you need other than toilet paper?

If you decided to watch the film let me know what you think!  You can comment below or reach out to us on Twitter or Facebook.

-Ariadne Ansbro



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