In his first three films, Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and the uproarious Lost in America (1985), the writer-director-star Albert Brooks seemed to be pushing his flaky comic aesthetic further and further. All three movies flowed out of Brooks’ hyperbolically verbal personality — the sound of a man talking circles around himself, his abrasive, domineering wit pickled in vats of Southern California psychobabble. When it comes to showcasing sheer, naked desperation — the nervous little kid still lurking within — Brooks holds nothing back. At his best, he becomes a touchstone for his audience’s anxieties, and Lost in America was his breakthrough. Casting himself as a fed-up advertising honcho who decided to ”drop out” (just like his heroes in Easy Rider), Brooks injected a new satirical urgency into his compulsive patter. The movie, an inspired send-up of yuppie angst, was a near classic, with some of the funniest scenes in years.
Brooks is an original, but he’s not exactly the hardest working man in show business. In the six years since Lost in America, he hasn’t done much except to costar in Broadcast News (1987) as the skittish wannabe anchorman who ardently pursues Holly Hunter. Hard-core Brooks fans — and I’m one — have every reason to lick their chops at the prospect of another Brooks original. So it’s my grim duty to report that his latest, Defending Your Life, is a lackluster affair — smooth and mildly pleasant, with some honest chuckles but without Brooks’ special, prosaic madness.
The movie is an afterlife comedy set in a place called Judgment City, a kind of blissed-out utopian purgatory where the recently deceased are sent to defend their lives in a mystical courtroom. For evidence, assorted scenes from your past are projected onto a screen, like home movies taken with a surveillance camera. What’s being judged? A simple question: On earth, did you allow your fears to dominate your life? If so, you are reincarnated and sent back to do it all over again. If not, you get to move on to the next level of cosmic consciousness. Brooks stars as Daniel Miller, a Los Angeles ad man who drives his new BMW into a bus and ends up in Judgment City, where he falls in love with a fellow spirit, Julia (Meryl Streep), who’s there to defend her life too.
The setup is gimmicky, yet it has a hook — the nifty, voyeuristic appeal of being able to look back on your most intimate or embarrassing moments. Daniel is assigned a defender, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), a jowly shark in three-piece suits. As scenes from Daniel’s life unspool in court, Bob attempts to present him as a brave and honorable fellow. The evidence indicates otherwise. While still in grade school, Daniel was too chicken to stand up to a bully. In his early 20s, he passed on an investment opportunity that would have netted him millions (though that seems more a result of ignorance than fear). Later, he took an advertising job for a far lower salary than he’d promised himself.
But this is all tired, generic stuff. The flashback scenes have no resonance, no special comic texture — they’re like instructional films from an est seminar. And since there’s nothing about Daniel’s ”fear” that’s very specific or even debilitating (at some point, who hasn’t squirmed out of a fight with a bully?), he barely seems a character.
You’d expect a satirical wiseacre like Brooks to take this premise and run with it. Instead, a lot of the movie is simply about Judgment City, an amusingly serene and comfy place full of manicured parks, vacuously friendly workers, and little trams that cart people to the appropriate destination. It’s like a cross between the Universal Studios tour and a ritzy drug-rehabilitation clinic staffed by Moonies. Much is made of the fact that the food is great, and that you can eat all you want without gaining a pound. Throughout the movie Brooks is greeted by zealous waiters and rambunctious sushi chefs who plunk down perfectly prepared meals and urge him to eat, eat, and eat some more! At times, Judgment City looks like the ultimate Catskill resort.
Yet what does any of this have to do with defending your life? When it comes to the meat of the picture, Brooks seems to have been on sabbatical. He keeps tossing in whimsical distractions, such as some business about people on earth using only three percent of their brains. In Judgment City, it seems, you learn to use up to 50 percent (though when Bob, the supercerebral defender, rationalizes away his client’s flaws, he sounds like nothing so much as a sleazy real estate broker trying to palm off a one-room pit as the deal of a lifetime). Brooks, too, uses Meryl Streep in a blandly redemptive way. Instead of being allowed to develop a comic character, she is simply plunked down to giggle and stare adoringly at Brooks, so that he can learn to Follow His Feelings. Does anyone really want to watch Albert Brooks get his est degree? By the end of Defending Your Life, Daniel may have broken through his fears, but Brooks the comic maestro seems all but paralyzed.