Not counting the films in which he has been merely a performer (the most memorable being "Broadcast News"), writer-director-comic actor Albert Brooks has made only four features in 12 years, but each has been better than the one before.
"Real Life," which had an obnoxious filmmaker following a suburban family around for a documentary, was flawed but occasionally very funny; "Modern Romance," about angst among yuppies who can't commit, similarly ran out of steam before it was over but had some terrifically bright moments; and "Lost in America," with a yuppie couple chucking the materialistic life and hitting the road, only to lose everything at a Las Vegas casino, was a scream before ultimately revealing it could not quite sustain itself to the end.
But with "Defending Your Life," Brooks has made his best, most fully realized film, a hysterical look at the afterlife.
The premise alone is a winner, beginning with a pre-credits sequence that has Brooks again playing a well-to-do yuppie, this time buying a new car on his birthday only to run head-on into a city bus.
As the credits roll, he awakens in a stupor to find himself being herded with hundreds of others into trams that will take him to Judgment City. He's put up in an adequate hotel and the next day meets with his defense counsel, Rip Torn, who explains that he has died and is in the way station between heaven and Earth.
Torn tells him that over the next few days he must confront two judges and a prosecutor (Lee Grant) as they watch selected moments from Brooks' life on a huge video screen. Ultimately, Brooks will either be deemed worthy to move on to the next level of life, or he will return to Earth to give mortality another whirl. He's on his 20th try.
Brooks is feeling OK about all this until he meets a woman (Meryl Streep) and falls in love, only to see that she is staying in a posh hotel, viewing far fewer days of her life on Earth and is an obvious candidate for the next level.
This is a great idea, and Brooks takes full advantage of its comic potential, showing Judgment City as clean and pristine with everyone dressed in white robes as they visit such amusement sideshows as "The Past-Lives Pavilion," where people can see what some of their other lives on Earth were like. (And special kudos for the side-splitting quick cuts of "misjudgments" in Brooks' life.)
In addition to a bevy of sight gags and hilarious set-pieces, Brooks has a field day with one-liners and great supporting characters he confronts during his brief stay in Judgment City.
Brooks is in fine form, on camera and off, and he's complemented perfectly by Streep, who seems to be having a great time in a wonderful comic role. Torn is also great filling out the film's own brand of logic as he vaguely answers Brooks' many questions.
This may be arguable theology, but cinematically it is one riotous piece of entertainment. And if it leaves you thinking a bit about your priorities in this life, who's going to complain?
"Defending Your Life" is rated PG for a few scattered profanities and a couple of vulgar jokes.