If Anaheim, California, were reimagined as a celestial way station, you’d have Judgment City, where the weather is “seventy-four degrees, perfectly clear, all the time” and “you can eat all you want. It won’t affect you physically and you won’t gain weight . . . Eat everything!” We are told that it was designed to resemble Earth to make the judgment process as stress-free as possible, and Brooks’s affection for the absurdities of the commonplace and the humdrum—what might look like contempt is always affection with Brooks, even in his most barbed satires—is abundant in every corner of this world, from the game shows on TV (Your Biggest Fear) to the hokey, Shakespeare-riffing menu at the diner where Daniel eats his first Judgment City breakfast (“To Bean or Not to Bean. That Is the Chili.”). The ambitious production design by Ida Random is a beige wonder, like Things to Come by way of Cybill, and the film is gorgeously shot by the late, great cinematographer Allen Daviau. It all amounts to a remarkably optimistic and comforting vision of the afterlife, as well as a sort of love song to Los Angeles and its surrounding enclaves, which may have come as a shock—and also perhaps a balm—to fans of Brooks’s previous work.
“One of Brooks’s great gifts has always been in the application of comic texture, the ability to find vibrant color in the mundane.”
Daniel’s boisterously patronizing defense attorney, Bob Diamond, is played by the late Rip Torn, stealing every scene he’s in with that marvelous baritone laugh; Daniel’s cutthroat prosecutor, Lena “the Dragon Lady” Foster, is a no-nonsense Lee Grant; and Shirley MacLaine is Shirley MacLaine, and when her holograph shows up to say, “Welcome to the Past Lives Pavilion,” the outraged offscreen woman who blurts a scandalized “Oh my God” is better than anything. (MacLaine’s cameo gains in charm when one recalls that she believes in reincarnation.) While on trial, Daniel meets the absurdly well-rounded Julia, played with infectious warmth by Meryl Streep, and they fall in love in a way that feels real and true, despite its utter instantaneousness. Julia is good-humored and confident, she lived her life with courage and generosity, and there’s no doubt about whether she’ll be moving on to the better place: her prosecuting attorney has moved over to the defense’s side, and her trial has turned into a joyous formality. Daniel, on the other hand, is a charming bundle of nerves who lived cautiously, worrying over inconsequential things and neglecting to take big swings when life offered rare opportunities. The short-film flashbacks that make up his trial (chronicling his myriad failures and decidedly unheroic successes) are among the most memorable bits in Brooks’s filmography, and they reach a delirious apex with a breathless montage of blunders and fuckups—“half of them fear-based, half of them just stupid,” in Lena Foster’s estimation—that represents a cross between Brooks’s earlier, more gag-driven work and the still-prickly humanism he later warmed to.
One of Brooks’s great gifts has always been in the application of comic texture, the ability to find vibrant color in the mundane—especially in the form of supporting characters, day players, and offscreen voices. In just the first few minutes, we have David’s friend’s materialistic wife (“What’d he get?” “BMW convertible.” “Oh my God, leather? . . . I want one.”), the lady on the phone with Daniel’s scummy car salesman (“I’m sure it’s nothing.” “Well, I’m sure it’s something.”), and the throwaway offscreen salesman assuring a prospective buyer “That’s a normal smell” as David is led to his new car. (Car salesmen, of course, being Brooks’s most enduring objects of derision.) My personal favorite instance of peripheral comedy in DYL may be the kids in Daniel’s childhood classroom answering their uptight teacher’s demands in unison. “Class, tell Daniel how much the [brushes] cost.” They all respond, “Three dollars,” except for the one kid who says, “Three-fifty.” When asked to assess the total cost of their paints and brushes, they all declare, “Thirteen dollars,” except for the “three-fifty” kid, who now asserts, “Thirteen-fifty.” Such voices distinguish Brooks’s singular/familiar environments and are a profound part of all his films’ identities, but DYL arguably boasts his richest collection of genial eccentrics and offhand larks.
Which returns me to Rip Torn, whose gregarious defense attorney stands tall among Brooks’s most ecstatic creations. Torn’s euphoric gift for comedy had never before been showcased, and Garry Shandling, after seeing what DYL had unleashed, approached Brooks about the idea of casting Torn as the ideal late-night producer, Artie, in the incomparable Larry Sanders Show. Take note, Sanders fans: without Diamond, there is no Artie. And as with Artie, Torn plays Diamond as a boisterous and fraternal/paternal voice of levity, solace, and full-bodied positivity. If Defending Your Life is a self-aware contribution to a grand tradition of comic love stories set in utopian, if bureaucratic, visions of the great beyond—the most hallowed of these being Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (although this one is more existential, albeit fluffily so, than either of those)—then Torn is the reigning king of benevolent divine guides, a category in which the competition is stiff (Claude Rains, Laird Cregar, Marius Goring, James Mason, etc.). His ability to effortlessly reframe flaws as virtues, and negatives as positives, is a wonder, and it strikes me with each viewing as a vital reminder of how to best live one’s life.