Picks and Pans Review: Defending Your Life
Writing, directing and acting his whimsical little heart out. Brooks proves in this postmortem comedy that there is indeed mirth after death.
He plays a selfish, rarely-do-well Los Angeles ad executive who accidentally drives his new car into a bus. He then finds himself in a transitional mode, in which he goes on trial to determine whether he is qualified to advance to a higher state of life or will be reincarnated back to earth.
Judgment City is a benign place, whose most attractive quality is that you can eat as much as you want without gaining weight—waiters routinely serve each diner three pounds of pasta for their entree. Brooks's lawyer. Rip Torn, is a jocular sort except for his strained sense of humor; he tells Brooks that while there is no hell, "I hear L.A. is just about as bad these days." Even the prosecutor, Lee Grant, is fairly benevolent as she attempts to prove-by displaying replays of crucial points in Brooks's life—that he has not learned to overcome his many fears, a shortcoming that has kept him earthbound for a number of lifetimes.
Brooks's hypercalm acting style helps maintain the subtle comic tone. After he meets fellow defendant Streep (at a Judgment City nightclub where a stand-up comedian is loud enough, though not funny enough, to rouse the dead), he notes that he may be leading an underprivileged afterlife; she finds boxes of expensive chocolates on her hotel room pillow every night, while he has to make do with a mint.
Then during a trial break, the couple visit the popular Past Lives Pavilion to see holographic images of their former selves—in a program introduced by Shirley Mac-Laine, playing herself.
Most of us being a smidge touchy on the subject of dying. Brooks has to keep a sharp eye on the Bad-Taste-O-Meter and never sullies his quiet punch lines. He has trouble only insofar as he never resolves the fact that Streep (whose performance is winningly sweet and easy) left two young children behind when she died. Only at the end, when he takes a predictable, unamusing route to the inevitable emotionally satisfying ending—Streep and Brooks die happily ever after—does his imagination falter.
Other than that, he generates a very smooth, ingratiating kind of comedy that never takes itself too seriously, certainly not in a theological way. In the Gospel According to Albert, the point of musing about a universe where reincarnation exists seems to be that we're all a lot safer if we get it right the first time. (PG-13)