Defending Your Life
Is there love after death? Acerbic everyman Albert Brooks finds a perfect balance between satirical bite and romantic-comedy charm as the writer, director, and star of this wonderfully warm and imaginative existential fantasy. After he dies suddenly, the hapless advertising executive Daniel Miller (Brooks) finds himself in Judgment City, a gleaming way station where the newly deceased must prove they lived a life of sufficient courage to advance in their journey through the universe. As the self-doubting Daniel struggles to make his case, a budding relationship with the uninhibited Julia (Meryl Streep) offers him a chance to finally feel alive. Buoyed by a brilliant supporting cast that includes Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and Buck Henry, Defending Your Life is a rare feat of personal, philosophical filmmaking that happens to also be divinely entertaining.
Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life gets a surprise Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It has been encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition.
The film has received a brand new 4K restoration (scanned from the original negative), something I would have never expected for the film. Though the film has a fantasy element to it and Brooks had Allen Daviau shoot it (director of photography for a number of Spielberg’s films before this one), I can’t say it looks all that different from most 90’s (romantic?) comedies, leading me to temper my expectation for this new presentation. This ended up being rather foolish on my end: the new presentation for this film looks remarkable.
What surprised me most about the end results was the incredible film-like texture to all of it. The grain ends up being a bit on the heavy side but ultimately very fine and clean, and it’s rendered incredibly here, retaining a very natural look throughout, never looking noisy or blocky, even in some of the film’s darker shots. This then of course leads to an insane level of detail, where even the finer fabrics and textures found in the robes worn by Judgment City’s visitor’s stick out.
The restoration has really cleaned things up, too: there’s nary a flaw to pick out. The film’s colours lean warmer but aren’t negatively affected by it, with whites still looking white. Blacks come out looking pure and deep, if a bit thick at times, like in the film’s few uses of optical effects that lead to a dupier look; the last shot sticks out a bit in this regard. Whites can also look a tad blown out, but I’m positive this is an intentional touch. The colour scheme is surprisingly limited (apparently there is a lot of beige in the afterlife) but the pops of colour we do get, whether from the blue sky or a few reds scattered about, are quite vivid.
It’s a bit surprising the film did end up getting a 4K workover since Brooks’ Lost in America only received a 2K restoration, but it paid off: this presentation ends up being quite the stunner in the end.
Criterion includes the film’s original 2.0 surround soundtrack presented in DTS-HD MA. This isn’t an overly aggressive soundtrack, with most of the audio sticking to the fronts. Dialogue sounds clean with excellent fidelity, and the overall soundtrack shows a good amount of range. The film’s score is really the only thing I can recall spreading out to the surrounds, but it fills out the environment wonderful, as does Streisand’s “Something’s Coming” during the film’s opening sequence.
I don’t know whether COVID is having a negative impact on features lately for Criterion, but this release ends up feeling disappointingly sparse. The features include a 12-minute feature that edits together archival interviews with Brooks, Lee Grant, and Rip Torn that were filmed in 1991 for a television talk show called Crook & Chase (looking to be taken from raw footage). The program features the three, recorded separately, talking about their work on the film, Brooks even getting into dealing with his role as both director and star. It’s a good addition if just to get the input from both Grant and Torn (the latter of whom is no longer with us), but thankfully Criterion has created a new program featuring Brooks with filmmaker Robert Weide, together yet again after previously filming an interview together for Criterion's Lost in America release. The 28-minute discussion done over Zoom—though set up to make it look like the two are in the same room together—features Weide asking Brooks a number of questions about the film, covering Brooks' initial ideas for the projects, its development, and how he managed to get the cast he did (how Streep came to be involved is a bit of a fluke). Weide also asks Brooks directly about the possible meaning behind certain sequences in the film (which Brooks usually shoots down) and Brooks concludes the interview talking about other versions of the script he had written. It’s a surprisingly in-depth discussion about the film's production and Brooks’ creative process, with Brooks keeping it all very amusing.
The film does end up, surprisingly, getting an academic addition: a new interview with theologian and film critic Donna Bowman in the 21-minute Spending Time in Judgment City. I wasn’t sure what the program’s goal was at first, as Bowman appears to be just going over what she liked about the world that Brooks created in the film, and how its presentation of the afterlife compares to other films that have attempted too accomplish the same, A Matter of Life and Death coming up. But then she starts looking at how the film deals with a number of existentialist themes, focusing primarily on French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his writings, his play No Exit coming into focus. To my surprise I came out of this interview realizing the film is quite a ways heavier than I had given it credit for.
The film’s theatrical trailer closes the disc, while an appreciation around the film by filmmaker Ari Aster—taken partially from an article he had written on Brooks for Criterion's blog The Current—closes off the release in the included insert, which rather cutely looks like a pamphlet for Judgment City. Aster appears to have been particularly taken by this film, lending to Brooks’ claim in his interview that he gets more appreciation for this film than his others.
In all, the material is good, but it leaves the question “is that all there is?”
The features feel slim in the end but the presentation is one of the nicer surprises I’ve had in recent memory. It looks just stunning.