Defending Your Life

Last updated
Defending Your Life
Defending your life poster.jpg
Defending Your Life poster
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written byAlbert Brooks
Produced byRobert Grand
Michael Grillo
Herb Nanas
Cinematography Allen Daviau
Edited by David Finfer
Music by Erroll Garner
Michael Gore
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date
  • March 22, 1991 (1991-03-22)
Running time
111 minutes [1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$16.4 million

Defending Your Life is a 1991 American romantic comedy-fantasy film about a man who finds himself on trial in the afterlife, where proceedings examine his lifelong fears, to determine whether he'll be (yet again) reincarnated on Earth. Written, directed, and starring Albert Brooks, the film also stars Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and Buck Henry. Despite comedic overtones, the film also contains elements of drama and allegory.



Los Angeles advertising executive Daniel Miller dies in a car accident on his 39th birthday, largely due to his distractedness, and is sent to Judgment City, a kind of a temporary paradise for the recently deceased. The city is a purgatory-like waiting area staffed by all-knowing and efficient but largely condescending bureaucracy who, having themselves moved on to their current new universal phase, mostly seem to gingerly look down on the new arrivals who will have their lives (or most recent lives) on Earth judged over a week-long or so hearing, each before two judges. Amenities and activities are provided, from delicious, calorie-free all-you-can-eat buffets to bowling alleys and comedy clubs. [2]

Daniel's defense attorney, Bob Diamond, explains that people from Earth use so little of their brains that they spend most of their lives functioning based on their fears. If the court determines that Daniel has conquered his fears, he will be sent on to the next phase of existence, where he will be able to use more of his brain and thus be able to experience more of what the universe has to offer. Otherwise, his soul will be reincarnated on Earth to live another life in another attempt at moving past his fears.

At Daniel's tribunal, presided over by two judges, Diamond argues that Daniel should move onto the next phase, but his formidable opponent, prosecutor Lena Foster, takes the opposing argument. Each utilizes video-like footage from select days in Daniel's life to make their case to the judges.

During the procedure, Daniel meets and falls in love with Julia, a recently deceased woman who lived a seemingly perfect life of courage and generosity, especially compared to his, which also explains why her fancy hotel lodgings are so much nicer than his spartan motel-like room.

Following each day's proceedings, Daniel and Julia spend time exploring Judgement City, including the Pavilion of Past Lives (hosted by a version of Shirley MacLaine, famous for her outspoken belief in reincarnation), where people can see all their past lives, often quite shockingly dichotomous.

In the meantime, things do not go well for Daniel. Foster shows a series of episodes in which Daniel never managed to overcome his fears, as well as various other bad decisions and mishaps, while Diamond vigorously attempts to portray Daniel's actions more positively, sometimes praising his client's "restraint" and "thoughtfulness".

Before the last day of Daniel's hearing, Julia asks Daniel to spend the night with her, but despite his strong feelings for her, he declines. The next day, Foster plays footage of Daniel's previous night with Julia, over Diamond's objections. Foster argues this clearly underscores Daniel's fear and lack of courage. The next day, it is ruled that Daniel will return to Earth, while Julia is judged worthy to move on. Before saying goodbye, Diamond comforts Daniel with the knowledge that the court is not infallible and just because Foster won it doesn't mean she's right, but Daniel remains disappointed.

Daniel boards a tram poised to return to Earth when Julia yells to him from a different tram. He manages to desperately unstrap himself, claw open a door, and leap, dodging other trams, and suffering minor electric shocks to get to Julia's tram. She is unable to open the door and he is unable to enter her tram. He clings to the outside of the moving vehicle, banging on the door and trying to pry it open. She yells in vain for the driver to stop. They tell each other they love each other. The scene pulls back to show that the entire event is being watched by closed circuit TV by Diamond, Foster, and the judges in the chamber where Daniel's hearing took place. Diamond remarks to Foster, "Brave enough for you?", who gives him a slight smiling acknowledgement. One judge whispers to the other, who then sends a message ordering the tram doors opened. Daniel and Julia are reunited, applauded by the other passengers, and embrace as they are allowed to move on to the next phase of existence together.


Shirley MacLaine has a cameo appearance as the holographic host of the "Past Lives Pavilion"—a reference to her publicly known belief in reincarnation.


Brooks worked on the story for over two years. "I wanted the equation to be a non-religious, non-heaven-like after-life," he said. "And I think the most interesting thing about the movie is what it says about earth. . . . Self-examination got a bad rap with all the yuppies turning inward. I think it's an important thing to do." [3] An early draft of the script included a different ending where Daniel is sent back as a horse, but Brooks found himself gradually drawn into the love story aspect of the plot and rewrote it accordingly. [4]

Streep was announced for the cast in November 1989. [5] Brooks explained, "I'm friends with Carrie Fisher and they worked together in Postcards From The Edge and we had dinner. Meryl joked and said, 'Is there a part for me?' I said, 'Yeah, right.' I would never have thought of her because I thought she was so unapproachable. But she's remarkably approachable. She's so average it's ridiculous. And so funny!" Brooks rewrote the part for Streep. "Comedy is rhythms. Writing is rhythms," he explained. "If you're writing and you have a specific person in mind, the imitative part of you copies that person a little bit and you get closer to that person's rhythms than your own." [3]

Filming began on February 12, 1990. [6] A January 1990 news release described the plot as "a fantasy about overcoming fears" where Streep and Brooks play people who are separately on trial, [7] but further details about the plot were not released publicly. [8] In January 1991, more details about the plot were released, describing it as involving "a neurotic advertising executive who dies in a car accident and then must defend his earthly actions before a kind of reincarnation review board". [9]

Some scenes were shot at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, [10] Irvine, and Anaheim, California. A scene where comedian Roger Behr plays "the worst commedian in the history of civilization" was filmed at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood. [11] The film hired 1,000 extras at a cost of $200,000. [12] The film was released on March 22, 1991. [13]


The film received mostly positive reviews from critics and holds a 97% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 36 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.8/10. [14]

Variety called it an "inventive and mild bit of whimsy" in which Brooks has a "little fun with the Liliom idea of being judged in a fanciful afterlife, but he doesn't carry his conceit nearly far enough." [15] Roger Ebert called it "funny in a warm, fuzzy way" and a film with a "splendidly satisfactory ending, which is unusual for an Albert Brooks film." [16] The New York Times called it "the most perceptive and convincing among a recent spate of carpe diem films"—a reference to films such as Dead Poets Society (1989), Field of Dreams (1989) and Ghost (1990). [17] Richard Schickel wrote: [18]

Defending Your Life is better developed as a situation than it is as a comedy (though there are some nice bits, like a hotel lobby sign that reads, WELCOME KIWANIS DEAD). But Brooks has always been more of a muser than a tummler , and perhaps more depressive than he is manic. He asks us to banish the cha-cha-cha beat of conventional comedy from mind and bend to a slower rhythm. His pace is not that of a comic standing up at a microphone barking one-liners, but of an intelligent man sitting down by the fire mulling things over. And in this case offering us a large slice of angel food for thought.

Bob Mondello, on NPR, said, "The result is not just his most mature comedy yet, but the best American comedy in years." J.Hoberman, in The Village Voice, called it "Pure pleasure. Funny, deft, impressive comedy."

The film was not a box office success, grossing about $16 million in the United States. It received three Saturn Award nominations, for Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Fantasy Film, and Best Writing (Albert Brooks). [19]

American Film Institute recognition:

Regarding the response from fans over the years, Brooks told Rolling Stone , "I've gotten thousands and thousands of letters of people who had relatives that were dying, or they were dying themselves, and the movie made them feel better. I guess it's because it presents some possibility that doesn't involve clouds and ghostly images." [21]

Video releases

Defending Your Life was released on VHS and LaserDisc in October 1991. Warner Bros. Home Video released the film on DVD on April 3, 2001, in a cardboard snap case. It features 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen formatting, subtitles in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, cast and crew information, and the film's theatrical trailer. Warner re-released the film in 2008 in a two-pack DVD set with Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World .

In December 2020, Warner Archive Collection re-released the movie on DVD. As well in December 2020, The Criterion Collection announced that Defending Your Life would join Brooks' previous film Lost in America as part of its esteemed film library on Blu-ray and DVD to be released March 30, 2021, featuring a new 4K restoration supervised by Brooks himself. [22]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Albert Brooks</span> American actor and filmmaker

Albert Brooks is an American actor and filmmaker.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Meryl Streep</span> American actress (born 1949)

Mary Louise "Meryl" Streep is an American actress. Often described as "the best actress of her generation", Streep is particularly known for her versatility and accent adaptability. She has received numerous accolades throughout her career spanning over five decades, including a record 21 Academy Award nominations, winning three, and a record 32 Golden Globe Award nominations, winning eight. She has also received two British Academy Film Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and three Primetime Emmy Awards, in addition to nominations for a Tony Award and six Grammy Awards.

<i>Death Becomes Her</i> 1992 US satirical black comedy fantasy film by Robert Zemeckis

Death Becomes Her is a 1992 American satirical black comedy fantasy film directed and produced by Robert Zemeckis. Written by David Koepp and Martin Donovan, it stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as rivals who fight for the affections of the same man and drink a magic potion that promises eternal youth, but causes unpleasant side effects.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nora Ephron</span> American writer and filmmaker (1941–2012)

Nora Ephron was an American journalist, writer, and filmmaker. She is best known for her romantic comedy films and was nominated three times for the Writers Guild of America Award and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally... (1989), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). She won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay for When Harry Met Sally..., which the Writers Guild of America ranked as the 40th greatest screenplay of all time.

<i>Silkwood</i> 1983 biographic drama on Karen Silkwood and the nuclear industry directed by Mike Nichols

Silkwood is a 1983 American biographical drama film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher. The screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen was adapted from the book Who Killed Karen Silkwood? by Rolling Stone writer and activist Howard Kohn which detailed the life of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a nuclear whistle-blower and a labor union activist who died in a car collision while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant where she worked. In real life, her death gave rise to a 1979 lawsuit, Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee, led by attorney Gerry Spence. The jury rendered its verdict of $10 million in damages to be paid to the Silkwood estate, the largest amount in damages ever awarded for that kind of case at the time. The Silkwood estate eventually settled for $1.3 million.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Parkyakarkus</span> American comedian

Harry Einstein, known professionally as Harry Parke and other pseudonyms, most commonly Parkyakarkus, was an American comedian, writer, and character actor. A specialist in Greek dialect comedy, he became famous as the Greek chef Nick Parkyakarkus on the Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson radio programs, and later on a program of his own. He appeared in eleven films from 1936 to 1945. He was also the father of comedians and actors Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein.

<i>The Devil Wears Prada</i> (film) 2006 film by David Frankel based on 2003 bestselling book

The Devil Wears Prada is a 2006 American comedy-drama film directed by David Frankel and produced by Wendy Finerman. The screenplay, written by Aline Brosh McKenna, is based on Lauren Weisberger's 2003 novel of the same name. The film adaptation stars Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, a powerful fashion magazine editor, and Anne Hathaway as Andrea "Andy" Sachs, a college graduate who goes to New York City and lands a job as Priestly's co-assistant. Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci co-star as co-assistant Emily Charlton and art director Nigel Kipling, respectively. Adrian Grenier and Simon Baker play key supporting roles.

<i>Doubt</i> (2008 film) 2008 American film by John Patrick Shanley

Doubt is a 2008 American drama film written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning 2004 stage play Doubt: A Parable. Produced by Scott Rudin, the film takes place in a Catholic elementary school named for St. Nicholas, led by Sister Aloysius. Sister James tells Aloysius that Father Flynn might be paying too much attention to the school's only black student, Donald Miller, thus leading to Aloysius investigating Flynn's behaviour. The film also features Viola Davis as Donald Miller's mother, Mrs. Miller, in her first notable role.

<i>Julie & Julia</i> 2009 film by Nora Ephron

Julie & Julia is a 2009 American biographical comedy-drama film written and directed by Nora Ephron starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Messina. The film contrasts the life of chef Julia Child in the early years of her culinary career with the life of young New Yorker Julie Powell, who aspires to cook all 524 recipes in Child's cookbook in 365 days, a challenge she described on her popular blog, which made her a published author.

<i>Postcards from the Edge</i> (film) 1990 film by Mike Nichols

Postcards from the Edge is a 1990 American comedy-drama film directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay by Carrie Fisher is based on her 1987 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. The film stars Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, and Dennis Quaid.

<i>The Iron Lady</i> (film) 2011 British biographical drama film

The Iron Lady is a 2011 biographical drama film based on the life and career of Margaret Thatcher, a British politician who was the longest-serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of the 20th century and the first woman to hold the office. The film was directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Abi Morgan. Thatcher is portrayed primarily by Meryl Streep, and, in her formative and early political years, by Alexandra Roach. Thatcher's husband, Denis Thatcher, is portrayed by Jim Broadbent, and by Harry Lloyd as the younger Denis. Thatcher's longest-serving cabinet member and eventual deputy, Geoffrey Howe, is portrayed by Anthony Head.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Meryl Streep on screen and stage</span>

Meryl Streep is an American actress who has had an extensive career in film, television, and stage. She made her stage debut in 1975 with The Public Theater production of Trelawny of the 'Wells'. She went on to perform several roles on stage in the 1970s, gaining a Tony Award nomination for her role in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1976). In 1977, Streep starred in the television movie The Deadliest Season, and made her film debut with a brief role alongside Jane Fonda in Julia. A supporting role in the war drama The Deer Hunter (1978) proved to be a breakthrough for Streep; she received her first Academy Award nomination for it. She won the award the following year for playing a troubled wife in the top-grossing drama Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). In 1978, Streep played a German woman married to a Jewish man in Nazi Germany in the television miniseries Holocaust, which earned her the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Meryl Streep in the 2000s</span>

Meryl Streep throughout the 2000s appeared in many cinematic and theatrical productions. In 2001, Streep's voice appeared in the animated film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Streep that same year co-hosted the annual Nobel Peace Prize concert, as well as appeared in the popular play The Seagull. In 2002, Streep appeared in the films Adaptation. and The Hours. In 2003, Streep appeared unaccredited in the comedy Stuck on You, and starred in the HBO play adaptation Angels in America. In 2004, Streep was awarded the AFI Life Achievement Award, and in that same year, she starred in the films The Manchurian Candidate and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. In 2005, Streep starred in the film Prime. Streep began 2006 with the film A Prairie Home Companion, and that same year, she starred in The Devil Wears Prada and the stage production Mother Courage and Her Children. In 2007, Streep appeared in the films Dark Matter, Rendition, Evening, and Lions for Lambs. In 2008, Streep starred in the films Mamma Mia! and Doubt. In 2009, Streep starred in the films Julie & Julia and It's Complicated, as well as loaning her voice to the animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox.

The 46th National Society of Film Critics Awards, given on 7 January 2012, honored the best in film for 2011.

<i>Florence Foster Jenkins</i> (film) 2016 film directed by Stephen Frears

Florence Foster Jenkins is a 2016 biographical film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nicholas Martin and Julia Kogan. It stars Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress known for her generosity and poor singing. Hugh Grant plays her manager and long-time companion, St. Clair Bayfield. Other cast members include Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, and Nina Arianda.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actress</span> Former annual Italian film award

The David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actress is a category in the David di Donatello Awards, described as "Italy's answer to the Oscars". It was awarded by the Accademia del Cinema Italiano to recognize outstanding efforts on the part of non-Italian film actresses during the year preceding the ceremony. The award was created during the second edition of the ceremony, in 1957, and cancelled after the 1996 event. The award was not granted in 1958.

The Jupiter Award is a German annual cinema award. It is Germany's biggest audience award for cinema and TV and is awarded annually by Cinema magazine and TV Spielfilm in eleven categories. The Jupiter awards began in 1979.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">74th Golden Globe Awards</span>

The 74th Golden Globe Awards, honoring the best in film and American television of 2016, was broadcast live on January 8, 2017 from The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California beginning at 5:00 p.m. PST / 8:00 p.m. EST by NBC. The ceremony was produced by Dick Clark Productions in association with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

<i>The Laundromat</i> (2019 film) 2019 film by Steven Soderbergh

The Laundromat is a 2019 American biographical comedy-drama film directed by Steven Soderbergh with a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns. It stars Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer, Matthias Schoenaerts, James Cromwell, and Sharon Stone. It is based on the book Secrecy World about the Panama Papers scandal by author Jake Bernstein.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">2019 Toronto International Film Festival</span> 44th edition of the festival

The 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival was held from 5 to 15 September 2019. The opening gala was the documentary film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, directed by Daniel Roher, and the festival closed with a screening of the biographical film Radioactive, directed by Marjane Satrapi.


  1. "Defending Your Life".
  2. "Welcome to Judgment City: A Look Back at Defending Your Life | Features | Roger Ebert".
  3. 1 2 de Vries, Hilary. The Globe and Mail . March 29, 1991. p. C3.
  4. "'Defending Your Life' at 30. Why Albert Brooks' view of afterlife bureaucracy endures". Los Angeles Times . March 30, 2021.
  5. USA TODAY , 8 Nov 1989: 01D.
  6. Blowen, Michael (January 28, 1990). "A Great Art Director Dies in Obscurity". The Boston Globe. p. B40.
  7. "Streep Sweeps". The Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas). January 14, 1990. p. 2.
  8. Kasindorf, Martin (February 18, 1990). "Comedy in the Dark". Newsday (Long Island, New York). p. 2/Part II.
  9. Chanko, Kenneth M. "Get Ready for Latest Hollywood Movie Rush". New York Daily News. Transcript-Telegram (Holyoke, Massachusetts). p. 15.
  10. Orange County Register . May 8, 1990. p. D1.
  11. Elias, Thomas D. (April 21, 1990). "'I Love Lucy' Pilot Emerges from Land of Dust Bunnies". Scripps Howard News Service. The Knoxville News-Sentinel' (Knoxville, Tennessee). p. B6.
  12. Earnest, Leslie (June 27, 1990). "County, Cities Seeing Payoff in Effort to Draw Filmmakers". The Los Angeles Times. p. F2.
  13. Fine, Marshall (March 21, 1991). "'Defending Your Life' Is Just Heavenly". The Daily Times (Mamaroneck, New York). p. C4.
  14. Defending Your Life at Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2019-07-12.
  15. "Defending Your Life". Variety. 1991. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  16. Roger Ebert (April 5, 1991). "Defending Your Life". Chicago Sun-Times . Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  17. Caryn James (April 21, 1991). "Carpe Diem Becomes Hot Advice". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  18. Richard Schickel (March 25, 1991). "Defending Your Life". Time . Retrieved 2021-05-01.
  19. Awards for Defending Your Life from the Internet Movie Database
  20. AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees
  21. Wood, Jennifer (March 22, 2016). "'Defending Your Life' at 25: Albert Brooks on Making a Comedy Classic". Rolling Stone . Wenner Media. Retrieved 2016-03-24.
  22. "Defending Your Life". The Criterion Collection. Criterion. Retrieved 16 December 2020.