Defending Your Life: Real Afterlife
It has seemed to me for a long time that there is far too little screaming about Albert Brooks. It has seemed that way to all of his staunchest fans, who secretly relish being among the evolved few who know the score. If zealotry among initiates counted for more than numbers, he would certainly be among the most fiercely heralded of all American auteurs. I say this with confidence because I have yet to meet a Brooks fan who isn’t frothing at the mouth. His films are true marvels of wit, originality, and penetrating insight—all of them treasured in knowing circles but none quite given their due in their own time. Defending Your Life (1991), my personal favorite among Brooks’s most generously piled beguilements, is obviously one of the great romantic comedies ever made, and about as ripe for rediscovery as they get.
It would be disingenuous to offer a tribute to Defending Your Life without first citing my mother’s fervent (and frothing!) veneration for the film—her enduring favorite. It was through her mania for DYL that I discovered Brooks. I remember watching it for the first time when I was very young—probably too young to even follow the story. “This is the best movie ever made,” she said as she popped in the VHS tape, and to this day I see her point. I’ve come to share many films with my mother over the years, but this one has always felt especially like a gift passed down to me, and it’s now an essential part of my vocabulary. Whenever I return to it, it feels more like a precious memory than a film. And yet it never fails to grow in pathos with each new viewing—a sure testament, given its themes, to my mounting catalog of regrets. At the risk of sounding sentimental, this magnificent movie—perhaps more than any other—feels like home.
Defending Your Life was the result of the obsessive honing of a comic sensibility over the decades. Born Albert Einstein—evidence that his father, Harry (a.k.a. Parkyakarkus), was a comedian—Brooks rose to fame in his twenties, in the early 1970s, as part of a new wave of postmodern, self-reflexive punks who took aim at the conventions of mainstream comedy, dismantling its mechanics while disdaining the gullibility of the audience. It was comedy as performance art as criticism, and through all of his early-career work—including his two classic albums, Comedy Minus One (1973) and A Star Is Bought (1975), and the six innovatively deconstructive shorts that he wrote and directed for Saturday Night Live in its first year—“Albert Brooks” was his alter ego, driven by monstrous hubris and carried over with lunatic showbiz swagger.