Film: “Defending Your Life” (13pt Video)

9 01 2011

FILM VIEW; Carpe Diem Becomes Hot Advice

By CARYN JAMES
New York Times

Here is the bad news about the afterlife, according to Albert Brooks: it is just as annoying as this life, at least for the first few days. There are lawyers after death and people who get better hotel rooms than you do and little old ladies on buses who talk your ear off about their pet poodles. When you die you go to Judgment City, an earthlike place where they have dead-Kiwanis meetings and stand-up comics in plaid sport jackets. They have the Weather Channel, with the Muzak version of “Misty” playing in the background.

This comically sour view of earth makes Mr. Brooks’s “Defending Your Life” the most perceptive and convincing among a recent spate of carpe diem movies. Their message is as pithy as a Coke commercial — “Don’t let life pass you by” — and it is powerful at the box office. 

“Defending Your Life” is savvier and, despite its white-robed characters, more realistic than most carpe diem movies because it does not depend on melodrama or old-fashioned idealism. It rests on the timely philosophy that earth is a banal place, full of nagging worries about money, marriage and social class, but you might as well make the best of it. If not, you’ll just have to be reborn and do it all over again. Finally, an attitude real people can live with.

This very funny social satire is shaped by the writer and director’s low-keyed persona. Instead of positing big themes about life and death, the story follows Daniel Miller, the 40-year-old advertising executive and anxious Everyman played by Mr. Brooks. His unheroic status is evident from the moment he dies in a version of a bad joke: hit by a bus while listening to Barbra Streisand singing “Something’s Coming” on a CD in his new BMW.

Daniel is instantly transported to Judgment City, which sounds like hell, but is merely, as he says, a pit stop. A prosecutor, defense attorney and two judges look at scenes from his life. If he has lived too fearfully, he will be sent back to earth; the innocent go on to a much better place.

Like any movie about the afterlife, though, Daniel’s story is really about this life. The film works so well because Mr. Brooks cloaks his heavier themes in satire and exercises a shrewd impatience with cliches. “Little brains, that’s what we call you folks behind your back,” Daniel’s defense attorney says of earthlings, who use only five percent of their brain’s power, tops. Scenes from Daniel’s past bear this out. The evidence against him runs from being bullied in the schoolyard to not buying Casio stock dirt cheap.

“There is no hell,” the attorney goes on, “though I hear Los Angeles is pretty close.” Daniel gives a fake, polite little smile at this shopworn L.A. joke. Recently, “Scenes From a Mall” offered dull Los Angeles jokes and “L.A. Story” offered spirited Steve Martin Los Angeles jokes, but Mr. Brooks laughs at L.A. jokes themselves.

And he mocks the media-shaped idea of a perfect life in the character of Julia, Daniel’s new-found love, played by Meryl Streep. When Daniel watches a scene from her past, in which she carries her children from a burning house and then goes back for the cat, he responds with awe, “It was like watching a Mutual of Omaha commercial.” The life-and-death moral issues of hell and heroism are slipped in blithely.

That unpretentious manner allows Mr. Brooks to pull off an ending of sweet, touching pathos. Daniel tells Julia, in a tone that says he is exhausted with carrying the weight of his life, “I’m just tired of being judged.” Mr. Brooks taps into a fundamental feeling about modern life here. He has earned the right to do it, because the emotion has grown from the film’s steadfast concern with everyday reality.

When the defense attorney advises Daniel that one should “just take the opportunities when they come,” it is an offhanded statement of the carpe diem theme the film embodies without preaching. Albert Brooks shares the kind of wisdom ordinary viewers can believe. He knows that life at its best often looks like an insurance commercial, but that’s no excuse not to seize those Mutual of Omaha moments.

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