‘Defending Your Life’: Restored Brooks’ comedy still full of laughs (Blu-ray movie review)
WASHINGTON — Filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks’ profoundly amusing look at the afterlife finally debuts in the Blu-ray format. “Defending Your Life” (Criterion Collection, not rated, 1.85:1 aspect ratio, 111 minutes, $39.95) now sparkles in this resurrected high definition visual presentation. The 1991 film starred Mr. Brooks as flawed advertising executive Daniel Miller. After dying in a traffic accident, Daniel finds himself ushered to Judgment City. He is literally placed on trial to determine his worthiness to either move on to a better place or get sent back to Earth.
What’s so funny about defending your life?
Daniel’s attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), has nine days to fight his eternal case. The defense hinges on proof of Daniel’s ability to conquer his fears. But Daniel and Bob they must battle against aggressive prosecutor Lena “The Dragon Lady” Foster (Lee Grant) in a duel partly played out by playing clips covering the defendant’s entire life.
But just as his hereafter hearing takes a turn for the worse, death gets more complicated when he meets the perfect human specimen Julia (Meryl Streep). Ironically at this point, he finds a stronger romantic relationship as the deceased than he ever found in his actual life.
The entire cast of “Defending Your Life” shines throughout in this version. It’s supplemented by an appearance of legend Buck Henry. He plays a too quiet co-counsel as this cerebral comedy mixes laugh-out-loud moments often tied to all-you-can-eat restaurants. For value-added, these detours provide some generous, food-for-thought philosophy.
The current edition of this film, a 4K transfer, was digitally restored from the 35 mm original camera negative supervised by Mr. Brooks. It delivers a natural film source presentation filled with more film grain that I would like. But the overall color is sharp and detail is not lacking in the screen-filling aspect ratio. Reference, for example, a scene in which Daniel suffers a snowmobiling accident in the bright and wintry great outdoors.
Criterion, known for providing a generous supply of bonus content in each of its releases, sightly underdelivers in this new “Defending Your Life” edition, with only a mere trio of featurettes.
First, and best of the bunch, is a 28-minute, socially distanced discussion between Albert Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide from late last year. They discuss movie specifics such as the opening scene (originally discouraged by the Warner executives); Mr. Brooks’ mission to take religion out of the afterlife; the design of Judgment City; the musical score; and variations on the ending.
More detailed points include what happened to the nine pies in the film’s famous restaurant scene; how the filmmakers made baby Daniel cry; and the first meeting between Albert Brooks first and Miss Streep at a party hosted by Carrie Fisher. Of course, throughout, the 73-year-old, acerbic comedian is as funny as ever.
Next, viewers get 12 minutes of archival interviews with Mr. Brooks, Miss Grant and Mr. Torn recorded for the talk show “Crook and Chase” in 1991. They separately dissect their roles and the origins of casting and working with the director. They also provide their thoughts on the afterlife. But mainly Mr. Brooks describes his process of shooting, writing and acting in the same film.
Deeper meaning for those who care…
Finally, critic and theologian Donna Bowman takes 21 minutes to dive into the movie’s deep meaning, touching on grand themes of the human condition, morality and judgement. She spends the majority of her time offering a lesson in existentialism, even comparing Mr. Brooks to Jean Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard. However, one thing I learned is that analyzing religion and comedy is a fool’s errand. She talks and therefore I ignore.
Additionally, the “Defending Your Life” Blu-ray package has a 12-page, foldout paper insert that resembles a faux visitor’s guide to Judgment City. The insert contains amusing advertisements, a brief explanation of the film’s restoration and an essay on “Defending Your Life” from director Ari Aster. It’s adapted from a longer magazine piece about Mr. Brooks’ movies.