Monday, February 20, 2012

Favorite Films: "Defending Your Life"

Of course, it would be this way: Just when you think you don't have to deal with another shred of bureaucracy because, you know, you're dead, you wind up in Judgment City, filled to the rafters with lawyers and assistants, with rules and systems so stringent you can't even get out of your seat on the convenient tram.

This isn't heaven, though its clockwork precision makes it clear someone is in charge.  "And it's not hell, either, although I hear Los Angeles is getting pretty close," says one of the bigwig lawyers, whose job it is to guide the newly dead through a process that determines whether they are sufficiently advanced to "move on" and walk through the pearly gates -- or whether they'll have to get right back on that tram and start all over again.

Defending Your Life is about as smart as comedies come, unnervingly observant about the way we struggle through life, remembering those lessons our first-grade teachers taught us to do our best, to try to do the right thing -- only more aware than ever, as adults, that those nice ladies spent their days in landscaped elementary schools, not dealing with the kooks and backstabbers and nutjobs whose only purpose is to stymie our success.

We're cynical adults now, immune to cute little aphorisms that promise us happiness.  The thing is, happiness is there; it always is.  The way writer-director Albert Brooks sees it (and he's probably on to something), we're just too damned scared to let it happen.

In Defending Your Life, Brooks plays Daniel, a jittery, discontent advertising man who wishes he had more money, wonders if he married the right person, and has very poor driving skills, because -- bam!  He drives straight into a bus, winds up in Judgment City and, well, you know what they say about love, that it finds you when you least expect it.

It comes in the form of angelic Julia (Meryl Streep), who has lived a very different life than Daniel.  She's one of those people to whom everything seems effortless: making friends, finding satisfaction, rescuing cats from burning buildings.  In Daniel, she sees someone more interesting than accomplished, someone who wants to be better, just doesn't know how.

So, the catch in Judgment City, with all of its gleaming, futuristic polish, is that your only task there is to review some days of your life and plead your case for why you made the right choices.  These lawyers are good, they choose the right stuff -- that is, the worst stuff, the stupidest mistakes, the poorest decisions.  When it's done, Daniel and Julia clearly won't be headed to the same place.

All they have is now.  All the can go on is what they feel.  No past, no future, just this.  Brooks clearly paid attention in his cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions, and what he's done in Defending Your Life is cut straight to its core in the most entertaining, engaging way possible.  Daniel has a choice: Forget what he knows and go with his gut; ignore what he's "learned" and pay attention to what he knows.

Defending Your Life is big-hearted and breezy, generous of spirit and humanely gentle.  Most of us are Daniel, Brooks knows.  We wanted to do right, we just couldn't help ourselves.  But there's always a chance.

Bouyed by a jaunty Michael Gore score, a production design that presents Judgment City as a sparkling Disney theme park, and a luminous, understated turn by Meryl Streep, who's rarely been less studied and more relaxed, Defending Your Life is the movie I most tell people who are struggling with life that they need to watch.  We all struggle, Brooks makes it clear -- but as long as the struggle leads to something better, it's worth it.

I've seen few films as wise and knowing about this uniquely American condition of feeling we haven't done enough, of beating ourselves up for the simple fault of being human.  None of us is perfect, but each of us has perfection buried somewhere in us, ready to rise up at the most important time.

More than any of his films before or since, Brooks puts his sarcasm on hold and goes for heart.  The result is splendid, almost transcendant -- a cinematic tonic recommended whenever life isn't going exactly the way you planned, brimming with optimism and hope for even the saddest sacks among us.

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