What awaits us after death? One religion tells us that living a moral and upstanding life will grant us a place in the kingdom of Heaven. Another tells us that there’s no heaven or hell but that you should aspire to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Don’t forget karma and rebirth and Valhalla. While we’re alive, we’re all rolling the dice that our deeds on Earth will grant us a ticket to a sweet hereafter.
In Albert Brooks’ 1991 comedy, “Defending Your Life,” now streaming as part of a Brooks collection on the Criterion Channel, the afterlife is a reflection of your personal hells, neuroses, and angsts. It’s a sendup on organized religion, but it’s also a comment on how we sentence ourselves to be constantly irritated, disappointed, and let down by the things we’ve been told by society we’re supposed to want—a fancy car, a beautiful wife (but not too beautiful), and money in the bank.
While the character of Daniel Miller, played by Brooks himself, doesn’t claim any religious affiliation, he is very much the product of a post-WWII Jewish comedian’s imagination. Jewish comedians (and Jewish people in general) don’t hold a patent on guilt and shame around sex, food, and money; they’re used as examples to show all the ways that we deny ourselves pleasure in the name of being good and how we allow ourselves to believe that all of the above should come with a happiness guarantee.
In “Lost in America,” “Mother,” “Modern Romance” and “Real Life” (his other films featured in Criterion’s showcase), Brooks’ characters are always seeking something meaningful from the universe. Brooks, playing a slimy television producer, learns nothing about the nature of reality in “Real Life” nor does he, in his role of of David Howard, an ad executive who decides to throw caution to the wind and liquidate his assets to discover life without responsibility, discover what means to be free in “Lost in America.” To attempt to do so is pure hubris, destined to end in farce.
“Defending Your Life” is a departure in that he, in his role of Daniel, doesn’t need to search for an answer. His appointed defender, Rip Torn, explains it to him (and to us) in the first 10 minutes of the film. The meaning of life, according to the Book of Brooks, is to live without fear and to keep getting smarter over the course of each lifetime. But Daniel comes to find out that the life he was living, successful as it may have looked on paper, wasn’t spiritually or emotionally evolved enough to achieve anything close to nirvana.
From the beginning, Daniel has it all but wants for everything. Like his David Howard in “Lost in America,” Daniel is a high-earning advertising executive Baby Boomer who wants to shake off the doldrums of life with a new automobile. In “Lost in America,” David, suddenly appalled that he’s been “too responsible” in his life, buys an RV. Daniel has chosen a BMW for his birthday present to himself. New car, new beginning! Weaving in and out of traffic, listening to Barbra Streisand singing the prophetic “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story,” he allows himself to become distracted, collides into a bus and dies—the ultimate reward/punishment for an American Jew, death by Streisand.
He awakes to find himself in Judgment City, where the newly dead go to have their lives on earth analyzed, and to see if they’re ready to move onto a higher plane of existence or be sent back to earth. Brooks’ Judgment City has no Pearly Gates or haloed saints. Instead, it’s Brooks’ idea of the Lord’s waiting room, a San Diego retirement community with a twist of Disneyland, where it’s 74 degrees and sunny every day. It’s a pleasant sort of hell—nice to visit, but you wouldn’t want to spend eternity there. Brooks creates a purgatory where, like Hollywood, the verdicts are decided by deal-making suits. Everyone thinks they’re smarter than everyone else and your fate is in the hands of a bunch of lawyers in a conference room.
When we look back with Daniel on his life, we see how from an early age, he sees that money is the root of all conflict. One of his earliest memories from the crib is watching his parents scream at each other over household expenses. Later, he’s judged for not being brave enough to advocate for himself when asking for a higher salary or shying away from investing in Casio watches (in the early 1980s!). All of this is played for laughs but really, Brooks is talking about how we chase and also run from wealth because we live in fear of not knowing what to do with it when we get it. Daniel has done fine for himself, but he’s too afraid to make a big score because he doesn’t know how to live richly.
There’s no currency in Judgment City (the snow-white robes have no pockets) but Daniel still manages to feel like a schlemiel. You can feel him wondering what the point was of accumulating all those airline miles and credit card points, since he ends up waiting out his fate in a business-traveler class Hilton while Julia, his shiksa love interest (played by Meryl Streep), gets to stay at the Ritz. Daniel is a fish out of water, not just because he’s in a Purgatory, but because he’s been playing the game of life by the wrong set of rules.
Daniel is fascinated and, at times, repelled by Julia, because not only has she had a rewarding life on Earth, she hasn’t taken any apparent food or sex shame or hang-ups with her to Judgment City. Nothing seems to embarrass or annoy her. She laughs loudly and doesn’t look to see if anyone is looking at her. Despite being told that he can eat all the “sensational” food in Judgment City without gaining any weight, he can’t let go of the sin of gluttony and the fear of cholesterol that ruined so many meals when he was alive. Instead, he enviously watches Julia wolf down a corn dog and asks her if she’s going to eat the stick too. He’s jealous because Julia is more alive when she’s dead than he ever was. Not only is she beautiful, fun, and open-hearted, she’s also a really good person who adopted children and saved the family cat from a house fire. How is he supposed to compete with that? No one told him that that’s what he was supposed to do.
Daniel is put to the final test on the evening before he and Julia learn their fates. She tells him she loves him and asks him to spend the night. Daniel agrees and yet, he cannot allow himself to stay. He tells her that despite the fact that the time they’ve spent together is “better than any sex he’s ever had, ever,” he feels too spiritually inadequate to make love to her.
"Let's say it's the most amazing thing ever,” he says. “Then what will I do? I doubt we're going to the same place. So, I'll just have to miss it forever and ever? And what if it's not so good? I won't be able to fantasize about it. I've been defending myself so hard. And I don't want to be judged anymore. I have this wonderful feeling inside of me, but I'm just tired of being judged.”
How self-absorbed is Daniel? Even in Judgment City, he can’t stop thinking about plagues (and how they affect him personally). By 1991, over 100,000 Americans had died of AIDS, instilling fear into Daniel’s heart. “Right now on Earth, they're filling our heads with these terrible things. They tell you over and over, you're not sleeping with one person, you're sleeping with everyone they've ever slept with. Now that I've been to the Past Lives Pavilion that could be 20 to 30,000 people.”
“Defending Your Life” isn’t a film about faith, but rather, it’s about having faith. Brooks has talked about his own relationship to Judaism, how he enjoys the community and ritual of going to services. But he knows there’s no guarantees. Brooks has stated that he doesn’t believe in an image of God that’s a thing or a person. That said, going back to the notion of a post WWII-era Jewish comedian’s take on life and death, having a fervent faith won’t save you from the evils of men. In 2012, he told Judd Apatow that religion is interesting when you’re part of a group that the rest of the world has issues with. “That’s why, if my kids didn’t want to go to temple, I used to say, ‘Let me explain something to you: If Hitler came back, he’s not going to ask if you went to temple. You’re already on the train. So you might as well know who you are and why they’re going to take you.’” Having a religious Jewish faith means more to Brooks than reading from the Torah. It means to be a generous person, a mensch, and to try to enjoy what life gives you, because so much is out of your control.
And it could be worse, Brooks tells us. You could end up as a comedian at a gloomy comedy club in Judgment City, doomed to spend eternity bombing in front of a bunch of out-of-towners. For an entertainer, there is no deeper hell.