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.


Los Angeles advertising executive Daniel Miller dies in a car accident on his 39th birthday and is sent to Judgment City, a Purgatory-like waiting area populated by the recently deceased, where he will have his life on Earth judged. Daniel and the rest of the departed are offered many Earth-like amenities and activities while they undergo their judgment processes—from delicious, calorie-free all-you-can-eat buffets, to bowling alleys and comedy clubs.

Daniel's defense attorney, Bob Diamond, explains 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.

At Daniel's tribunal, presided over by two judges, Diamond argues that Daniel should move onto the next phase, but his formidable opponent, Lena Foster, takes the opposing argument. Each utilizes video-like footage from select days in Daniel's life to make their case to the judges.

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. Meanwhile, things 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, while Diamond vigorously attempts to portray Daniel's actions in a more positive light. Following each day's proceedings, Daniel and Julia spend time exploring Judgement City.

On the last day of the hearing, Foster plays footage of Daniel's previous night with Julia, in which he declines to spend the night with her despite his strong feelings for her. Foster believes this clearly underscores Daniel's 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 boards a tram poised to return to Earth when he spots Julia on a different tram. On impulse, he unstraps himself, leaps from the moving tram, dodges traffic and suffers electric shocks and injury to get to Julia. Unable to enter her 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 Diamond, Foster, and the judges in the chamber where Daniel's hearing took place. Diamond remarks to Foster, "Brave enough for you?" Foster has no reply other than letting a bit of a smile slip as well. One of the judges sends a message ordering the tram doors opened. Daniel and Julia are reunited, 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.


Brooks worked on the story for over two years. "I wanted the equation to be a non-religious, non-heaven-like after-life," he said. "And I think the most interesting thing about the movie is what it says about earth. . . . Self-examination got a bad rap with all the yuppies turning inward. I think it's an important thing to do."[2]

Streep was announced for the cast in November, 1989.[3] Brooks explained, "I'm friends with Carrie Fisher and they worked together in Postcards From The Edge and we had dinner. Meryl joked and said, 'Is there a part for me?' I said, 'Yeah, right.' I would never have thought of her because I thought she was so unapproachable. But she's remarkably approachable. She's so average it's ridiculous. And so funny!" Brooks rewrote the part for Streep. "Comedy is rhythms. Writing is rhythms," he explained. "If you're writing and you have a specific person in mind, the imitative part of you copies that person a little bit and you get closer to that person's rhythms than your own."[2]

Filming began on Feb. 15, 1990.[4] The film's plot was a well-guarded secret throughout production.[5] Some scenes were shot at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, a suburb in Orange County, California,[6] as well as Irvine and Anaheim. The film was released on March 22, 1991.


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.[7]

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."[8] 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."[9] 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).[10] Richard Schickel wrote:[11]

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.

Bob Mondello, on NPR, said, "The result is not just his most mature comedy yet, but the best American comedy in years." J.Hoberman, in The Village Voice, called it "Pure pleasure. Funny, deft, impressive comedy."

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).[12]

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."[14]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b de Vries, Hilary. The Globe and Mail, 29 Mar 1991: C.3.
  3. ^ USA TODAY, 8 Nov 1989: 01D.
  4. ^ The Boston Globe, 31 Dec 1989: A6.
  5. ^ Kasindorf, Martin. Newsday, 18 Feb 1990.
  6. ^ Orange County Register, 8 May 1990: d01.
  7. ^ Defending Your Life at Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2019-07-12.
  8. ^ "Defending Your Life". Variety. 1991. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  9. ^ Roger Ebert (April 5, 1991). "Defending Your Life". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  10. ^ Caryn James (April 21, 1991). "Carpe Diem Becomes Hot Advice". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  11. ^ Richard Schickel (March 25, 1991). "Defending Your Life". Time. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  12. ^ Awards for Defending Your Life from the Internet Movie Database
  13. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees
  14. ^ 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]