I distinctly remember when DEFENDING YOUR LIFE opened in March of 1991, it was a pretty crappy season for movies, with a lot of bad ones opening and closing and the likes of HOME ALONE and DANCES WITH WOLVES still selling out at the old HQ10. I had seen DEFENDING at an earlier screening before it opened and liked it very much, but it ended up being a hard sell to get people to go see it for some reason. It was always seen as a second or third choice ("THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is sold out? What else is playing?"), but I do recall people liking it when they exited the theater. I happened to also be working at a video store when it hit video and again, it wasn't a picture at the top of anyone's list, but when people saw it, they liked it. Cable has been very good to it, too (having a lot to do with its numerous daily showings thanks to its friendly PG rating), and it seems to me to be a picture that a lot of people have discovered throughout the years ("Oh yeah, that's a really funny movie"), but its status as a classic is slower in coming than I'd like. But a classic it is, an almost perfect comedy with a treasure trove of great ideas and innovation that keeps giving back to the viewer. I honestly wish there were more movies like it.
What hooks me into DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is that it has this amazingly simple premise - defending whether or not you've conquered the fears of your life after you die - and works it perfectly. This kind of thing had been done before, but usually as a sketch or part of a bigger film, like in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER; Brooks took a risk in working an entire feature around this, because it could have ended up too sitcom-y, but it's obvious that he knew what he was doing. This is a film that's been scripted by a master (well, two masters, Brooks and his co-writer, Monica Johnson) who is able to avoid giving the material any kind of sentimental qualities that would make it too soft. Brooks and Johnson take an idea that's pretty universal (we all have fears and they're part of what holds us back from achieving total happiness) but they don't make it into a "feel good" movie, but one that makes you think about how these themes impact your life. No bullshit, there hasn't been day since I've seen DEFENDING YOUR LIFE where I haven't thought about this premise and how, if I were to be judged, what it would look like. At the same time, I haven't been able to walk past any establishment that says "All Nude" without thinking of DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, either, but that's neither here nor there. Brooks and Johnson tap into something very important, that sense of the spirit as it relates to the here and now, and run with it through the film; Brooks' character learns (albeit very, very, very late in life) how to discover true happiness by letting go of his ego and conceptions of who he thought he was vs. who is really is and that makes this a very rich film. GROUNDHOG DAY gets a lot of praise (justifiably so) for having essentially the same concept behind it, but DEFENDING YOUR LIFE did the exact same thing just a well and two years earlier, to boot.
And DEFENDING YOUR LIFE also happens to have an amazing cast behind it. When the film came out there was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that it was Meryl Streep's first comedy, though she's actually more or less the straight woman to Brooks, but as Meryl Streep so often does, she takes this kind of character and makes it much more fleshed out than you would expect. She has to provide Brooks' character with something to believe in and in the end, you realize she is indeed worth fighting for. Brooks does what he does so well once again and his big scene, where he tells Streep that he loves her but chooses not to stay the night with her, is beautifully done. But the film is practically stolen by Rip Torn as Brooks' lawyer, a master BS artist who can spin anything into a positive. This was just before THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, when no one could realize he could do comedy so well, and it was a revelation then and it's still a classic performance today. So many of the film's biggest laughs are Torn's and he works Brooks' wonderful dialog like a master (such as the title line for this piece) that I wonder why the two haven't worked together since. But they're wonderful together here.
DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is about as quality as movie comedy gets; some may say it's not "edgy", but it deals with so many deep and important themes that the edge comes from there. You can sit there and watch it and be entertained, but it will give you a lot to think about afterwards and it won't soon leave your psyche. That alone makes it more than just a great comedy, but a great film, period. It's one of my favorites.