May 19, 2007

Defending Your Life (Brooks, 1991)

What happens to us when we die? This fundamental question provides the premise for Defending Your Life, a premise that seems perfectly attuned to writer/director Albert Brooks's particular brand of intelligent comedy. According to him, we are put on a trial of sorts, where it is determined whether we move on to the next world, or get sent back to earth to be reborn. Yet although the film is certainly entertaining, it also represents a missed opportunity of sorts.

In this case, Brooks's intelligence is to fault. If the film never quite realizes its full comedic potential, it is primarily because Brooks is so preoccupied with creating a fully formed vision of the afterlife, complete with its own interesting philosophical system, and peppered with a raft of entertaining details and visual gags (the pavilion of past lives is particularly enjoyable), that he forgets to put equal effort into the films plotting and dialogue. The result is a comedy that elicits many smiles, but hardly any big laughs.

Brooks's prior film, the hilarious Lost In America, succeeded primarily because of his way with conversation, his ability to write hilarious exchanges. Here, the dialogue is occasionally good, but too often, conversations feel uninspired, like filler, and while the actors give it their all (particularly Meryl Streep and Rip Torn), Defending Your Life ends up feeling extremely light. It runs 20 minutes longer than Lost In America, but manages to feels less substantive. Yet, although it never quite reaches the admittedly lofty comedic heights of that former film, the intelligence and clever minutiae of Defending Your Life make it an enjoyable way to spend two hours.