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Albert Brooks defends his cinematic life

Albert Brooks in "Defending Your Life."

LOS ANGELES This is a very small anecdote, but maybe it will lead somewhere. I went to interview Albert Brooks out at his office at Warner Bros. We were going to talk about "Defending Your Life," his new comedy about a man who discovers the afterlife is a place named Judgment City, and you go on trial there. We had a good talk.

As I was getting up to go, Brooks said, "Look at these funny coffee mugs the studio sent over."

He had four or five of them on a shelf, cups shaped like the Warner's cartoon heroes.

"Here," he said. "Have one. I want you to have one."

He pressed Elmer Fudd into my hands.

"No, that's OK," I said.

"Take one. What is this, a bribe? They're worth 10 cents apiece. Twenty-five cents, tops."

"You know," I said, looking at the shelf, "I've never really been a fan of Elmer Fudd. My hero has always been Daffy Duck."

Brooks took the Daffy Duck mug from the shelf.

"Here, take it," he said. "I want you to have it. Really."

I could tell from the subtle intonation in his voice exactly what had happened. He had given me Elmer Fudd because he didn't like Elmer Fudd, either. He liked Daffy Duck. I had taken his favorite mug.

"No, you keep Daffy," I said. "I'll bet it's your favorite."

"Come on, come on," he said. "Take Daffy Duck. Take the one you want." I tried to put Daffy back on the shelf. He pressed Daffy into my hands. I left with Daffy, but I would have bet a hundred bucks that the moment I was out of his office, Brooks had his secretary call Warners to see if they could send another Daffy Duck over.

Now, what is the point of this anecdote? It is that things like this keep happening to Albert Brooks, and he is intensely alert to them, and they form the foundation of his humor. He has made four move comedies in the last decade, and they have all been based on a character, played by himself, who dreads embarrassment and desperately wants to do the right thing, and is filled with fear that he will be found out, and who uses appeasement as a tactic. In this case, he feared that he would be found wanting in generosity. The ceramic mugs were not worth much in dollar terms, but he tried to give away the one he didn't like, and got caught, and ended up giving away his favorite. That is one interpretation. Another is that this whole reality was created in my mind, and he didn't give a damn whether he was left with Daffy or Elmer. But - here is the crucial part - his persona inspired my fantasy. That's even worse: The possibility that people think this way about him even if it isn't true.

You are losing patience with this whole line of reasoning. You wonder what it has to do with "Defending Your Life" (now playing at Chicago area theaters). I will tell you. The stories in all of Albert Brooks' movies are generated by his deep-seated compulsion to be good, and his equally deep fear that he will be found wanting. That's why his comedy is so distinctive: It doesn't come out of the manipulation of comic formulas, it comes out of emotions he really feels.

You think I'm making this all up? Try sitting and talking to Albert Brooks for an afternoon. His whole conversational style consists of holding his motives up to the light and scrutinizing them. He never ever once even for a second asks if you think his movie is funny. He wants you to know his motives are pure, that he worked hard, that he took pains so that you would not be disappointed. I find this characteristic both honorable and endearing, although on the other hand I would not want to sit next to Brooks on a three-day bus ride.

"Defending Your Life" is his most mature, thought-out comedy because it springs directly from his own daily, even hourly, examinations of conscience. The movie is about a guy named Dan Miller, played by Brooks, who drives his new car head-on into a bus, and finds himself in a heavenly holding area where there's a courtroom, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a judge, and a big screen where you can view episodes from your past. You have to defend yourself, or you'll be sent right back to Earth for another lifetime.

"The funny part of the movie, to me," Brooks said, "is the idea that Earth is not the place you want to be. All the other afterlife movies are about people trying to return to Earth, revisit their friends and families. This is a movie about wanting to leave the Earth completely behind."

In the movie, Judgment City is like a big retirement resort with trams that shuttle the residents back and forth between their hotels and tennis courts. The Brooks character is given a clean, well-lighted room with a bare minimum of luxury; Tom Bodett would price it at about $26 a day, some locations a little more, a few less. Brooks is content until he meets a beautiful woman played by Meryl Streep and visits her hotel, which looks like a fairly expensive Hyatt. Do his accommodations reflect the moral quality of the life he has just finished leading?

"There are so many things that are hinted at," Brooks said. "Rip Torn (who plays the defense attorney) asks me, Did you ever give to charity? It's not a good or a bad thing, I'm just asking. I keep getting all these little hints that I didn't do quite as well as I should have. I ask him why I'm in this particular hotel, and not one of the nicer ones. I don't know, don't worry about it. It's not a good or bad thing.

"Should I just give up, then, since obviously in Judgment City they don't think I'm ready for the two-room suite? What I was really overcoming was fear. What this movie says, in its simplest form, is that it's not too late. A lot of people including myself have said, oh man, it's gone bad for this long, forget it! The only hopeful concept to me in life is that if you decide to get off your ass, it just might count. I'm not promising you anything, but you may not have to go back to first grade. Give it a try. See what happens." No clouds in his heaven

He was as solemn as if this were a theological discussion. "I'm happy to throw this idea out there. If some people think it's stupid, if some people think it's real, at least it's another idea in the fire now. This isn't another recycled heaven from another movie. There are no clouds in this movie, I'm proud of that."

Not even fake clouds in the special effects scenes?

"No! And for the money we paid, they were going to throw it in! You sure you don't want some clouds? Nah, that's OK."

Diane Keaton made a movie called "Heaven" in 1986 that consisted of a lot of people talking about their notion of heaven. Their ideas were intercut with clips from movies about heaven, including that great image of David Niven arriving in the afterlife in "A Matter of Life and Death" and seeing the residents gazing down upon him from gigantic round galleries in the sky. Many of us were raised with the notion that our departed loved ones spent most of their time up there "looking down on us," even though the catechism suggests that their time is more profitably occupied with gazing upon the perfection of God. What no one has ever suggested, before Albert Brooks, is that heaven is like an efficient corporate personnel processing center.

"People ask me, do you believe in this?" Brooks said. "Here's my answer. I think if there were a lottery about what the next world is like, I'd bet on this. A computer works by discarding all the wrong answers, and the remaining one is right. I approached the afterlife the same way. All I've ever seen in movies are clouds, and wings, and harps, and angels, and I said damn it! It's gotta be something, but why is it that?"

One of the biggest box office hits of the last year was "Ghost," in which Patrick Swayze was so concerned about seeing justice done on Earth that he actually took lessons on how to rematerialize his corporal body. That would never happen in a Brooks movie.

"Movies like `Ghost,' movies that suggest that people come back to help you, those are pretty much the predominant images of the afterlife. `A Guy Named Joe' (remade a year ago by Steven Spielberg as "Always') and those movies. It's a nice thought. It's a tender thought. I lost my father at an early age, and I'm sure he's with me in spirit, but I've never seen him, so I couldn't write about it honestly, and so I guess I've looked around for years thinking well, what clues do we have?

"So I thought, let's say our world didn't come from nothing. Let's just say it came from something. And if this is how it works, then maybe heaven works the same way. Then, if you want to know how heaven would process newly arrived visitors, all you have to do is figure out the most practical way to do it on Earth.

"And what would they be looking for, in the new arrivals? I looked for the one thing that bonds us all, and I think that all human beings are afraid of something. We're afraid. If it's a tiger in the Euphrates, or it's a tank in the Persian Gulf, or if it's going on Saturday Night Live. I don't know what it is, but our hearts pound, and I always thought in my own life, about all the stuff that I could do, if I could conquer fear. So, maybe they're testing us to see how well we have learned to handle fear.

"To me, the one thing we're all going to do is leave here, and isn't it remarkable over the course of cinema, how few stories there are about it! The Buddhists believe that existence is a wheel, and if you are condemned to hell, you just are kept at work, pushing the wheel on Earth. But if you are fortunate enough, you're plucked from the wheel, and then you in fact have escaped."

How he visualized Judgment City, he said, is sort of an eerie story: "I had a tape recorder beside me and I must have driven 300 miles without knowing I went a foot. I swear to God I went to this place Judgment City. I mean I drove safely, but I was walking down these streets, I was smelling the clean air. The next thing I know, I drove into a 7-Eleven and said, where am I? And I was in Bakersfield."

Brooks' previous movies have all had fairly small budgets. There was "Real Life" (1979), the spoof on a cinema verite documentary like "An American Family." And "Modern Romance" (1981), about the impossibility of transcending your flaws to build a good relationship. And "Lost in America" (1985), about a couple who risked everything for their freedom, and then gambled away the nest egg on the first night in Vegas.

Between his filmmaking jobs, Brooks has worked as an actor, most notably in "Taxi Driver," "Private Benjamin" and "Broadcast News," where his character started sweating uncontrollably when he got his change at an anchor job. Now comes "Defending Your Life," which is a big-budget movie for Brooks, more than $20 million, with an expensive star like Meryl Streep and lots of special effects. Did he feel strange having all of these resources at the disposal of his notions about heaven?

"Let's say somebody throws you in small movie jail," he said. "You can only make $3 million movies. Well, I still wouldn't want to give up this subject. We could have shot it in this office. I could have had Rip sitting at that desk, and this could have been the waiting room, and you could rent a hotel room, and do the movie."

But he was glad he had the extra money, he said, because that gave him the freedom to make Judgment City look real, right down to the giant, sinister trams that whisked people to and fro, and which he rented from the Universal Studio Tour for a great deal of money. And also right down to the long shots of Judgment City, which are special effects, although they don't look it. And right down to Meryl Streep.

"Working with her is like being a fastball pitcher," he said. "You get it back as hard as you throw it. How she came to be in the movie is, I'm close friends with Carrie Fisher, and Carrie asked me to her house for dinner, and Meryl was there, and what I saw was this person that I had never seen before. I thought of Meryl Streep as almost an untouchable, and I saw the most natural, hanging-out person I ever saw. I thought, that's the woman in the movie! Even when we were filming, some people had their doubts. Because they think of `Sophie's Choice.' Well, this is Sophie's other choice." Hope for big audience

Although Warner Bros. has high hopes that "Defending Your Life" will find an audience, the studio is opening it slowly, first on the coasts, then in the larger cities, letting it build with word of mouth instead of putting it on a thousand screens at once. Comedies that make you think do not always do as well as comedies that make you barf. The other American filmmaker who resembles Albert Brooks, at least in the way that he writes and directs his own films, and often deals with his own neurosis, is Woody Allen. But when I mentioned his name, Brooks got analytical.

"I'll tell you something. It is getting to be a harder world to make movies that gross $5 million than it used to be. Woody, bless his heart, had a running start at it, and had about 13 under his belt before the world changed, and then at least they could say, well we've made 13, so let's keep going, but the company he's working for (Orion) is now having hard times, so I think he's going to have a little trouble.

"I think there's going to come a time when there will be a pretty tragic meeting. I'd like to be a fly on the wall. A meeting where some schmuck says to Woody Allen, Well, what's it about? I mean, Woody Allen has had unprecedented freedom, no audience testing, no anything. He doesn't even have to give them a title.

"I had to go out and raise my money, and that took a year of work, and a very unrewarding year's work, because you don't get a single laugh, and nobody compliments you. No one even knows what you're doing. You're just out there in hotels."

He thought about that for a moment, and sighed, and offered me a coffee mug made in the image and likeness of Elmer Fudd.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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