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‘Defending Your Life’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 05, 1991


Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks;
Meryl Streep;
Rip Torn;
Lee Grant;
Buck Henry
Parental guidance suggested

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Death is not the end. At least, not in Albert Brooks's "Defending Your Life." In this witty, amiable satire, the dearly departed go to Judgment City, an Oz-like citadel more like Los Angeles than heaven. There are no singing angels, swirling clouds or soothing harps, just a lot of helpful people ushering the dead to their appointed trials.

Death, as Brooks is about to discover, means never having to say you're not represented. Moments after a fatal collision with a bus, he's given a room, a rest, an omelet and a court date. Dispatched to a courtroom-cum-movie theater, he has to watch scenes from his life, then answer probing questions from prosecutor Lee Grant. With the ineffective assistance of defense lawyer Rip Torn, he must refute charges that his life has been ruled essentially by fear. If Brooks "wins," he gets to ascend the spiritual ladder. But if Grant prevails, he'll have to undergo another earth life.

When Grant suggests Brooks was too scared to retaliate when a teenage bully hit him, Torn claims it was "restraint." Brooks, fast on the uptake, agrees.

"Well, I wanted to hit him back," he tells Grant, "but I had restraint."

Asked to sum up, Brooks says, "I feel very good about the restraint idea."

The movie is anything but a trial. Brooks, who also scripted and directed, creates a universe of consistent amusement. A sign at Brooks's hotel, for instance, welcomes the "Kiwanis Dead." The weather channel constantly forecasts "74 degrees -- perfectly clear all day." People can ogle at their former selves at the Past Lives Pavilion -- where the holographic host is Shirley MacLaine.

"Defending" progresses into a satisfying romance between Brooks and fellow soul Meryl Streep without faltering. Streep softens her thespian exoskeleton for a surprisingly engaging peformance. Unlike Brooks, she has been a spiritual goody-two-shoes on earth. When they check into separate booths at the Past Lives Pavilion, she sees a heroic Prince Valiant. He sees an African warrior being chased by a lion.

"Who are you?" calls Streep.

"Lunch," replies Brooks.

Brooks-the-performer embodies the movie's spirit with superb modulation. When a celestial valet shows him to his hotel room, Brooks absent-mindedly reaches for change. The trouble is, he's dressed in a pocketless robe. During the trial, he's a virtuoso of facial reactions. As he battles two judges and a determined prosecutor for his spiritual life, he seems to register all the known emotions; embarrassment happens to be his specialty.

It's pure delight to watch each new expression mark Brooks's face as his automatic chair whirs him from video screen to jury, then back again. This is definitely Brooks's day in court, and he makes comic heaven of it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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