Defending Your Life

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Defending Your Life
Defending your life poster.jpg
Defending Your Life poster
Directed byAlbert Brooks
Produced byRobert Grand
Michael Grillo
Herb Nanas
Written byAlbert Brooks
Music byErroll Garner
Michael Gore
CinematographyAllen Daviau
Edited byDavid Finfer
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • March 22, 1991 (1991-03-22)
Running time
111 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$16.4 million

Defending Your Life is a 1991 American romantic comedy-fantasy film about a man who dies and arrives in the afterlife only to find that he must stand trial and justify his lifelong fears in order to advance to the next phase of existence; or be sent back to Earth to do it again. The film was written by, directed by, and stars Albert Brooks. It also stars Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant and Buck Henry.

The film was shot in and around Los Angeles, California. Despite its comedic overtones, Defending Your Life contains elements of drama and allegory.


Daniel Miller, a Los Angeles advertising executive, dies in a car accident on his 39th birthday and is sent to the afterlife. He arrives in Judgment City, a Purgatory-like waiting area populated by the recently deceased of the western half of the United States, where he is to undergo the process of having his life on Earth judged. Daniel and the rest of the recently deceased are offered many Earth-like amenities and activities in the city while they undergo their judgment processes—from all-you-can-eat restaurants (which cause no weight gain and serve the best food), to bowling alleys and comedy clubs.

His defense attorney, Bob Diamond, explains to Daniel that people from Earth use so little of their brains (only three to five percent) that they spend most of their lives functioning on the basis of their fears. "When you use more than five percent of your brain, you don't want to be on Earth, believe me," says Diamond. If the court determines that Daniel has conquered his fears, he will be sent on to the next phase of existence, where he will be able to use more of his brain and thus be able to experience more of what the universe has to offer. Otherwise, his soul will be reincarnated on Earth to live another life in another attempt at moving past his fears.

Daniel's judgment process is presided over by two judges. Diamond argues that Daniel should move onto the next phase. His formidable opponent is Lena Foster. Diamond informs Daniel that she is known as "the Dragon Lady", and despite Diamond insisting the proceeding are "not a trial", there is clearly a contentious rivalry between the two attorneys. Each utilizes video-like footage from select days in the defendants' lives, shown to the judges to illustrate their case.

During the procedure, Daniel meets and falls in love with Julia, a recently deceased woman who lived a seemingly perfect life of courage and generosity, especially compared to his. The proceedings do not go well for Daniel. Foster shows a series of episodes in which Daniel did not overcome his fears, as well as various other bad decisions and mishaps. Diamond attempts vigorously to portray Daniel's actions in a more positive light, though he fails to appear one day due to being "trapped near the inner circle of thought". Following each day's proceedings, Danial and Julia spend time exploring Judgement City.

On the last day of the hearing, it seems the final nail in Daniel's coffin is when Foster plays footage of Daniel's previous night with Julia, in which he declines to spend the night with her, for what Foster believes is his same fear and lack of courage. It is ruled that Daniel will return to Earth. Meanwhile, Julia is judged worthy to move on. Before saying goodbye, Diamond comforts Daniel with the knowledge that the court is not infallible and just because Foster won it doesn't mean she's right. Daniel remains disappointed.

Daniel finds himself strapped to a seat on a tram poised to return to Earth, when he spots Julia on a different tram. On impulse, he unstraps himself, escapes from the moving tram, and suffers electric shocks and injury to get to Julia. Unable to enter the tram, he clings precariously to the outside of the moving vehicle, banging on the door and trying to pry it open. The scene pulls back to show that the entire event is being watched by Foster, Diamond, and the judges in the chamber where Daniel's hearing took place. A smiling Diamond remarks "brave enough for you?" Foster has no reply other than letting a bit of a smile slip as well, and one of the judges sends a message ordering the tram doors opened. Daniel and Julia reunite to the applause of the other passengers, and embrace as they are allowed to move on to the next phase of existence together.


Shirley MacLaine has a cameo appearance as the holographic host of the "Past Lives Pavilion"— a reference to her publicly known belief in reincarnation.

Video releases[edit]

Defending Your Life was released on VHS and LaserDisc in early 1992. Warner Bros. Home Video released the film on DVD on April 3, 2001, in a cardboard snap case. It features 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen formatting, subtitles in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, cast and crew information, and the film's theatrical trailer. Warner re-released the film in 2008 in a two-pack DVD set with Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.


Variety called it an "inventive and mild bit of whimsy" in which Brooks has a "little fun with the Liliom idea of being judged in a fanciful afterlife, but he doesn't carry his conceit nearly far enough."[2] Roger Ebert called it "funny in a warm, fuzzy way" and a film with a "splendidly satisfactory ending, which is unusual for an Albert Brooks film."[3] The New York Times called it "the most perceptive and convincing among a recent spate of carpe diem films" — a reference to films such as Dead Poets Society (1989), Field of Dreams (1989) and Ghost (1990).[4] Richard Schickel wrote:[5]

Defending Your Life is better developed as a situation than it is as a comedy (though there are some nice bits, the stand-up comedian asking Daniel how he died - "on stage, like you" and a hotel lobby sign that reads, WELCOME KIWANIS DEAD). But Brooks has always been more of a muser than a tummler, and perhaps more depressive than he is manic. He asks us to banish the cha-cha-cha beat of conventional comedy from mind and bend to a slower rhythm. His pace is not that of a comic standing up at a microphone barking one-liners, but of an intelligent man sitting down by the fire mulling things over. And in this case offering us a large slice of angel food for thought.

The film received mostly positive reviews from critics and holds a 97% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.66/10.[6]

The film was not a box office success, grossing about $16 million in the United States. It received three Saturn Award nominations, for Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Fantasy Film, and Best Writing (Albert Brooks).[7]

American Film Institute recognition:

Regarding the response from fans over the years, Brooks told Rolling Stone, "I've gotten thousands and thousands of letters of people who had relatives that were dying, or they were dying themselves, and the movie made them feel better. I guess it's because it presents some possibility that doesn't involve clouds and ghostly images."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Defending Your Life". Variety. 1991. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  3. ^ Roger Ebert (April 5, 1991). "Defending Your Life". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  4. ^ Caryn James (April 21, 1991). "Carpe Diem Becomes Hot Advice". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  5. ^ Richard Schickel (March 25, 1991). "Defending Your Life". Time. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  6. ^ Defending Your Life at Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2019-07-12.
  7. ^ Awards for Defending Your Life from the Internet Movie Database
  8. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees
  9. ^ Wood, Jennifer (March 22, 2016). "'Defending Your Life' at 25: Albert Brooks on Making a Comedy Classic". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. Retrieved 2016-03-24.

External links[edit]