What happens when you die?
That’s a question theologians, philosophers and academics have been asking for centuries. The afterlife is also one of the major themes in the 1991 film “Defending Your Life,” which stars Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep.
Brooks, actually born Albert Einstein, is the son of comedian Harry Einstein and dancer Thelma Leeds. Born in Los Angeles and raised around Hollywood royalty with Milton Berle, Jack Benny and George Burns as frequent houseguests, Brooks quickly developed a career as a quirky, self-deprecating funny man.
After starring in 1987’s “Broadcast News,” which earned Brooks an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, he spent more than two years working on the script for “Defending Your Life,” which he would not only star in but direct.
While there’s been countless variations on what happens in the afterlife on film — Disney has practically built its empire on the death of major characters — no movie has taken a more unique look at something everyone is curious about than “Defending Your Life.” Thought-provoking, sweet and humorous it’ll make you rethink what happens after you die.
The plot: Daniel Miller (Brooks) is an advertising executive in Los Angeles. After purchasing a new car for his 40th birthday, he promptly gets into a car accident and dies. Daniel is taken to Judgment City, where the recently deceased are evaluated on how they lived their lives. It’s explained to Daniel by his defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) that a two-person tribunal will determine whether he’s managed to conquer his fears. If so, he’ll move on to the next plane of existence; if not he’ll be reincarnated back on Earth.
While going through his multiday hearing, Daniel meets Julia (Meryl Streep). Confident and brave, Julia doesn’t seem to having anything in common with her awkward friend, but she’s attracted to Daniel’s sense of humor, intelligence and kindness. At the end of each day the two spend time together and soon realize they love each other.
On the final day in Judgment City, it’s determined that Daniel must return to Earth and Julia will move on. Daniel hasn’t overcome his fears and must try again. He’s sent to a terminal and placed on a tram to return to Earth when he looks over and sees Julia on another tram.
Trapped inside the vehicle but determined to reach the woman he loves, Daniel escapes from his tram. He gets shocked and dodges traffic to reach Julia. He’s eventually allowed on, the two are reunited and they move on together.
Casting: It was through childhood friend Carrie Fisher that Brooks met Streep, who was starring in Fisher’s semiautobiographical film,“Postcards from the Edge” at the time.
At a dinner party at Fisher’s house, Brooks was telling Streep about his upcoming film when she joked, “Is there a part for me?” She was cast soon after and Brooks made rewrites to the script to fit Streep. Glen Close had been offered the role before Streep but turned it down.
Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson were offered the part of Bob Diamond but couldn’t accept the role due to scheduling conflicts.
Best and worst reviews: “Defending Your Life” has an aggregate score of 63/100 on Metacritic and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film a strong score, stating, “The movie is funny in a warm, fuzzy way, and it has a splendidly satisfactory ending.” Ken Hanke of Mountain Express, clearly not a Brooks fan wrote, “Interminable, typical Albert Brooks.”
Brooks on the film’s concept: “It intrigued me that the whole universe would be run sort of like a business,” said Brooks in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone. “I also liked not having Earth as a place that’s the best place. You don’t want to go back to Earth, and by the way, they weren’t threatening to send you back as an animal. It was obvious you were going to have to go back as a person and try it all over again; that was failure.”
Most rewatchable scene: The most humorous and strangest scene takes place in a comedy club. A comedian is tanking onstage. The comedian shouts from the stage to Daniel, “How did you die?” He replies, “Onstage, like you” and gets a laugh from the audience. This is an in-joke as Brooks’ father Harry actually did die on stage during a Friar’s Club roast.
Gazette TV critic Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.