Albert Brooks wrote, directed, and stars in this film along with Meryl Streep. The movie came out in 1991 and represents Brooks' humorous way of looking at what happens to you in the afterlife. According to the movie, when a person dies they go to Judgement City where their life is reviewed and judged. If you were a good enough person you don't have to return to Earth, instead you continue "on" and your brain continues to evolve. People on earth use at best 3 to 5% of their brain. The people in Judgement City are using about 10 times that in terms of their brainpower.
The film runs 112 minutes and is not an award winning film. It is humorous and interesting. The key reason I encourage people to watch the film is that it does an excellent job of introducing you to very important issues about the importance of how you live your life. The film Meetings With Remarkable Men is a far more profound and serious movie that presents some of the key concepts that Gurdjieff presented in his book by the same name. Most people lose interest in that movie and therefore don't appreciate it; whereas, most people enjoy Defending Your Life. The point is that what really matters is not the profundity of the message but how the message is delivered. If you want someone to appreciate an important topic, you are more likely to succeed if you utilize some degree of humor in your effort. A light touch tends to work better than a heavy one.
Brooks in many ways is the ideal creator for such a movie as his whole life from his moment of birth has been one long joke. His real name is Albert Einstein---yes, it really is, no joke! He was the son of comedian Harry Einstein (alias Parkyakarkus---you have to say that name out loud to appreciate it). His father was a sidekick of Eddie Cantor. Albert started out as a standup comic and then moved into television. He gained popularity on Saturday Night Live and then began his acting career. His first movie as an actor was the super dark Scorcese film starring Robert DeNiro entitled Taxi Driver. I'm still being serious…it is hard to imagine him starting out this way, but he did.
The movie starts out with Daniel Miller (the character played by Brooks) celebrating his birthday by picking up his brand new BSW convertible. We see him as a reasonably successful advertising executive with a witty sense of humor. As he is driving his new car he is listening to Barbara Steisand singing "Something's Coming" when he gets distracted and plows into a bus and gets killed. In short, this is a warning to us all that you have to keep focused. We will learn later in the movie that fear is the great distractor. We don't actually see the accident, no blood and gore in this film about death. The film is loaded with jokes like the title of the Streisand song and you will most likely miss some of them.
When he gets to Judgement City he is immediately informed that he can eat as much as he wants and will both continue to feel fine and not gain weight. Just about everyone in the audience can appreciate how wonderful that would be! Judgement City has nightclubs, bowling allies, golf courses, and fabulous restaurants---a place where the weather is always perfect and life is glorious…except you find out that you have to defend the life that you have lived most recently. (You also, if you care to, can go to the Past Life Pavilion and watch other lives that you have lived.) For Julia, the Streep character that he meets in Judgement City and falls in love with, the defense is a lark. She has lived a wonderful life and enjoys reviewing it. For Daniel it is anything but enjoyable. Rip Torn plays his defense attorney Bob Diamond and Lee Grant plays his prosecutor Lena Foster "The Dragon Lady" who presents scenes out of his life that reveal that Daniel has consistently let fear rule his life.
At the Past Life Pavilion Daniel sees himself in a past life as a native in Africa being chased by a lion. No wonder that fear is so big an issue in his life! Julia sees herself in a past live where she is Prince Valiant and as we see she was a brave and loving person during her most recent incarnation on Earth. In short, to really understand what makes you tick in your present life it helps to know what things you experienced in your past lives. (An insider joke occurs at the Past Life Pavilion as the host is none other than Shirley MacLaine who is famous in real life for being a great actress and an author on the subject of past lives in which she strongly believes. For details, read her book Out on a Limb. MacLaine's life has been a wondrous journey of exploration and evolving that is a model for how a person can overcome their fear.) A cute and funny bit is that you see other people viewing their past lives where they were totally different types of individuals---a conservative older man finds out he was a female and an older woman discovers she was a sumo wrestler in their past lives. All of these little nuances by Brooks are consistent with what we know about past lives from the research in this field. He isn't just making up the lines from off the top of his head. He obviously has studied the field---which is often what professional writers do before they sit down at the typewriter.
At the end, Julia and Daniel are madly in love with one another and she invites him up to her room. He declines because fear continues to rule his life. This is used against him in his "trial" and he loses so that he has to return to Earth while Julia gets to go on. However, at the last moments of the movie love conquers all and he does demonstrate that he can overcome his fears. It is all a corny Hollywood ending, but, hey, the whole movie is corny! So what! The corn is palatable, often funny, and presents you with some profound things to think about.