Program Notes: Defending Your Life (1991)

Hollywood depictions of the afterlife range from the pious to the ludicrous. Weirdly enough, Albert Brooks’ comedy Defending Your Life rings truer than most.

In this funny and surprisingly sweet film, Brooks plays neurotic ad man Daniel Miller, who is creamed by a bus while taking his new BMW out for a spin. He awakens in Judgment City, a cross between Disney World and a Mormon visitors' center where the newly deceased are encouraged to enjoy themselves while awaiting the disposition of their cases.

Clothed in white robes called "tupas," newcomers wander about playing golf, riding in open-air shuttle trams, pigging out on delicious food that has no calories, visiting the Past Lives Pavilion (where a holograph of Shirley MacLaine introduces them to their previous incarnations) and listening to nightclub comics who pay homage to Frank Sinatra by crooning "That Was Life."

Film Screening:
Defending Your Life (1991)
Monday, Dec. 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

It's a lot like Florida, only the hotel lobbies have signs that read "Welcome Kiwanis Dead."

In Brooks' vision, the afterlife is operated by a benign but indifferent bureaucracy whose job is to push highly developed spirits on to other celestial planes while recycling garden-variety sinners for another go at terrestrial life.

All this is explained by Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), Daniel's alarmingly ineffective legal counsel. Daniel must spend several days in court defending his life against a tough prosecutor (Lee Grant) who will try to prove that he wasted his time on Earth and will have to go through it all again.

On a positive note, Daniel meets the freshly dead Julia (Meryl Streep), a wife and mother whose prospects are much brighter than his. While Daniel is confronted with re-enactments of his moments of cowardice and weakness, Julia gets to watch herself rescue her own family from a burning house. She also has been assigned to a ritzy hotel, while Daniel's accommodations are strictly economy class.

Despite Julia's obvious moral superiority, she's approachable and slightly silly and absolutely taken with Daniel's hilarious self-deprecating jokes (few things in the movies are as wonderful as listening to Meryl Streep rip loose with a from-the-gut laugh). Love blossoms, but what future is there for a woman headed for the stars and a guy whose next stop is a Fallopian tube?

Brooks models himself on Buster Keaton – he's a minimalist whose dominant expression is browbeaten incomprehension accompanied by a defeated, plodding gait. He doesn't emote but he's never boring, because on his features the merest whisper of an expression has a wealth of meaning.

Although hers is a relatively small role, Streep actually holds the film together. On paper Julia might very well have been colorless, but Streep fashions a delightful, appealing character out of whole cloth and gives the romantic subplot a memorable bittersweet edge.

See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series.

Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.