Defending Your Life ★★★★½

"Defending Your Life", a story about a neurotic man being judged by his fears and finding love after his death, is probably the most openly romantic and hopeful film in Albert Brooks's filmography. It's a delightful, imaginative film that manages to be honest about the fear and neuroses that dominate so much of modern life while also daring to believe in something better than that, something beyond such petty concerns. Though I love how Brooks's character is still dominated by those feelings and fears, even after his life on Earth has ended, and even though such concerns might hold him back and keep him from progressing to the next level of existence. After all, it's not like he's intentionally choosing to let these things control him. He's a slave to these emotions, as so many of us are. He has no choice.

Brooks is quite charming here, despite the problems he's grappling with. I love that his sense of humor is his greatest asset. It has helped him deal with the problems of his life on Earth, and it is what wins over Meryl Streep when they meet in the comedy club of the Afterlife. Speaking of Ms. Streep, this movie finds her at perhaps her most incandescent. She's a wonderful, winning creature here. She's a woman who confronts her fears and surmounts them, a woman who has lived a good life though, as the movie frequently points out, it was not a perfect life. Her marriage was problematic. Her death was undignified. But unlike Brooks, Streep makes the best of these things. She accepts what has happened to her and simply moves on. She doesn't let Fear paralyze her. She overcomes it and puts it behind her. Despite all of this, however, I totally bought the romance between Streep and Brooks. They have a wonderful, sweet chemistry together and I found them to be a completely enchanting couple. The movie allows us to see what a woman who has everything figured out (seemingly) would find in a schmuck like Brooks. He's a good-hearted, hilarious schmuck after all. He's a good guy who simply has some issues, and Streep can see past all of that to see the potential within him which (mild spoiler) helps him reach said potential. That's what Love does, at its best. It helps us to become better people. It doesn't make us perfect, but it helps us to try.

That's kind of a cornball sentiment, but Brooks is a smart enough writer and director to make it work. He couches all of this wonderful, romantic sentiment in his usual assortment of cringe-worthy moments and hilarious skewering of the modern world. He also has some fun with the strange legal process that determines where these people will spend the Afterlife. Rip Torn is utterly delightful as Brooks's attorney, and the abundance of excellent food is a wonderful running gag.

I laughed quite a bit, and I found my heartstrings surprisingly engaged. "Defending Your Life" is a charming experience and it's just as sharp and funny as all of Brooks's other films. I'm so glad that I took this deep dive into his filmography. There's some highly rewarding stuff here.

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