I don’t know how I first came across Defending Your Life. I hadn’t seen any of Albert Brooks’ previous movies at that point and don’t remember seeing trailers or anything else for it and seeking it out in any way. Which means more than likely I came across it on cable at some point and, quite frankly, fell in love. Here was a movie that was so dryly funny it was practically barren and which presented a dark sort of inevitability about life with some sort of hope that a person can overcome their nature if they want something badly enough. The movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary, with a Rolling Stone retrospective from Brooks being the prompt for me to revisit the film’s marketing.
In the movie, which he also wrote and directed, Brooks plays Daniel, a modestly successful Los Angeles advertising executive (Brooks had a thing for playing ad men) who is celebrating his birthday by buying a new sports car. Shortly after pulling it off the lot, though, he dies in an accident with a city bus and finds himself in Judgement City, a stopping point for the newly-departed. There he meets Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), a quasi-attorney who explains what Daniel is doing there: Defending his life. He needs to prove to the court he’s capable of overcoming fear in order to move to a higher plane of existence (Heaven?) but if he can’t do that he’ll be sent back to Earth. In Judgement City he also meets Julia (Meryl Streep), who also recently died but who seems to be on an upward path while Daniel is decidedly not. Julia, though, provides the spark that prompts Daniel to rise above his inherent fearful nature and take the next step.
The poster is a wonderful work of minimalism. We see Brooks and Streep in their robes and slippers in a romantic kind of pose, but get no other information about the characters. In the background is a billboard for Judgement City, showing it to be just a few minutes away down Past Lives Parkway. Copy at the top declares this is “The first true story of what happens after you die,” which establishes at least the basic premise of the story.
What I want to focus on though is the white space, the wonderfully uncluttered nature of the one-sheet. The images and text only take up about half the real estate here and the rest is just blank. That’s not only evocative of what the audience could expect in the movie, which is filled with white buildings, scenes and more but also of the sense of humor of the movie. The writing and performances are filled with surfaces on which are drawn the characters and story. Everything you need to know about the movie and its tone can be found in the white spaces of the poster.
Also, let’s just note that this was an era in movie history when Buck Henry’s name was big enough to put on the poster. I kind of miss that.
The trailer opens by showing us how Daniel died, which is “stupidly.” We quickly get the setting and the premise as we hear he’s in Judgement City and he’s here to defend his life. Rip Torn’s fantastic attorney explains this isn’t Heaven and it isn’t Hell and we meet Streep’s Julia as well as some of the supporting cast. Interestingly the trailer absolutely gives away the emotional climax of the movie, showing how Daniel chases after Julia as their shuttles are pulling away.
It’s a good trailer but it really undersells just how dryly funny the movie is. It takes a lot of the good jokes and positions them more broadly than they’re played in the full film. So the audience in 1991 could be forgiven if they thought they were going in for one thing and wound up getting something a bit different. I also find it odd that the trailer doesn’t reference any of Brooks’ previous movies. While this was only his fourth directorial feature, his previous movies were all stunners, including Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America. But maybe there just wasn’t the full appreciation for the Brooks brand at that time. Still, he had a core of devoted fans – I know because I quickly became one of them – and the lack of direct outreach to them seems odd here.
Overall between the two elements, though, you can get a good sense of the movie’s overall tone and direction. The story was sold well and while you can quibble with some of the choices, you can’t say they’re hiding the fact that this is a high-concept comedy, not one that’s going to play to the cheap seats. I like that about the movie because while the trailer may present a slightly different tone than the finished product it, and the poster, make it clear this will be a movie that makes you think, even if it’s presented from the angle of an easily-digestible romantic comedy.