American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
A recent survey indicated that most Americans believe in heaven and hell, and of those who believe, the overwhelming majority expect to find themselves in heaven after they die. Since many of them obviously deserve to go to the other place, if only for owning cars with burglar alarms that go off in the middle of the night, a movie like "Defending Your Life" makes perfect sense.
It is Albert Brooks' notion in this film that after death we pass on to a sort of heavenly way station where we are given the opportunity to defend our actions during our most recent lifetime.
The process is like an American courtroom, with a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, but the charges against us are never quite spelled out. The basic question seems to be, are we sure we did our best, given our opportunities? In the movie, Brooks plays Dan Miller, a successful exec who takes delivery on a new BMW and plows it into a bus while trying to adjust the CD player. He awakens in a place named Judgment City, which resembles those blandly modern office and hotel complexes around big airports. He's given a room in a clean but spartan place that looks franchised by Motel 6.
At first Dan is understandably dazed at finding himself dead, but the staff takes good care of him. He's dressed in a flowing gown, whisked around the property on a bus, and told he can eat all he wants in the cafeteria (where the food is delicious but contains no calories). Then he meets his genial, avuncular defense attorney (Rip Torn), and his hard-edged prosecutor (Lee Grant). It's time for the courtroom, in which we see flashbacks to Dan's life as he tries to explain himself.