Defending Your Life Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Love in the Time of Purgatory

Defending your life is a task all face in the afterlife in Albert Brooks’ film of the same name which takes place in Judgment City after Daniel Miller’s (Brooks) demise. It’s a purgatory where people learn if they are moving onto the next existential plane or will be sent back to try again. It’s a surprising location for a romantic comedy and a surprising story for a filmmaker whose previous work (Modern Romance and Lost in America) offers pessimistic views of life.

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Soon after Daniel arrives in Judgment City, he learns there will be a hearing that looks back at his life as everything has been recorded. Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) is his defender. He informs Daniel that because humans use so little of their brain (three to five percent), they are ruled by fear. As people lose their fear, they become smarter and find true happiness, which is how they move on. Daniel is approaching his 20th reincarnation on Earth and eventually, the universe gives up on you.

The prosecutor, Lena “the Dragon Lady” Foster (Lee Grant), presents moments where Daniel appears ruled by fear, such as when he was 11 and didn’t fight back when he was bullied, when he was 24 and passed on an investment opportunity, and at 29 when he practiced negotiating with his wife, holding out for $65,000 but immediately accepting the first offer of $49,000. Bob dismisses those moments, stating they don’t show fear in Daniel but rather a spiritual pursuit rooted in forgoing violence and material things.

One night, Daniel goes to a stand-up club where he meets Julia (Meryl Streep). She likes his sense of humor. He can’t believe how much better of a person she is, especially after he sees that she saved children and a pet from a burning building. They quickly fall in love but Julia reveals she is likely to move ahead after the next day’s session. She asks him to stay the night but he’s afraid to in part because he doesn’t think they are going to same place, so his fear keeps him from being with the first woman he has ever loved. He has a chance to follow her if he and Bob can convince the judges but Lena has one last exhibit to present.

Brooks’s script offers an interesting view of the afterlife and delivers good plot twists to keep the audience guessing. No surprise that Brooks’s script is very funny as it delivers his trademark caustic wit, which is frequently directed at his character Daniel. What is surprising is how heartwarming the story is as the viewer roots for them to find a way to unite.

The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. According to the liner notes, “This new digital restoration [approved by director Albert Brooks] was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, California. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, and small dirt.”

The production design in Judgement City uses lots of neutral colors, predominantly bright whites and rich brown hues. Blacks are inky. The image delivers fine texture detail and good depth. Film grain is apparent. Cinematographer Allen Daviau appears to shoot Streep with extra light to make her character more angelic.

The liner notes also state, “the original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the original 35 mm LTRT magnetic tracks using Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX.” Dialogue is clear. Composer Michael Gore’s score comes through with good clarity. The sound mix has a good balance of elements.

The Special Features are:

  • Albert Brooks and Robert Weide (HD, 29 min) – Recorded in November 2020, the pair discuss different aspects of making the film.
  • Albert Brooks, Lee Grant, and Rip Torn (SD, 12 min) – They appear in separate interviews promoting the film on Crook & Chase in 1991.
  • Spending Time in Judgment City (HD, 22 min) – Theologian/critic Donna Bowman discusses the film and afterlife.

It’s easy to defend Defending Your Life. The film is one of the great love stories and it delivers plenty of laughs. The Criterion release delivers a pleasing high-definition presentation, so fear not, and add it to your library.

Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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