Defending Your Life is a new-age reincarnation movie, which means it has a sappy premise that only someone that has led a pampered existence could possibly relate to. Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) is an advertising executive who buys himself a BMW as a birthday present to himself. Then, when trying to pick up a bunch of CDs that have fallen on the floor while driving, he runs head on into a bus, dying instantly. When he wakes up, he finds himself in Judgment City, where a tribunal will decide whether he will be able to “move forward” (presumably to some higher plane of existence), go back to Earth to be reincarnated so he can try to do better next time, or be discarded as so utterly worthless that he is not worth saving.
Now, you may think this tribunal would be concerned with Miller’s self-centered attitude or his thoughtlessness. Or possibly it would be concerned with some darker sins, like being mean and selfish. No, the only thing the tribunal cares about is fear. According to prosecuting attorney Lena Foster (Lee Grant), Miller cannot be allowed to move forward, because he never overcame his fears.
Let’s stop right there. Fear is a normal, healthy reaction to danger. It is the emotion that makes you take precautions to avoid dangerous situations, and when that is not possible, to hide or run away. The absurd premise of this movie, that fear is something that must always be overcome, makes sense only in a world where one is sheltered from danger. This is a movie for people who live in the nice part of town, not in the bad part where gangs terrorize the neighborhoods. It is a movie for people who have never been to war, who never had to fear having their legs blown off by an IED. It is basically for people who have lived relatively healthy lives in middle-class America.
During the trial, we see scenes from Miller’s life of which every second has been recorded. We see, for example, a scene in which he is being harassed by a bully when he is in grade school. This is presented by prosecuting attorney Foster as evidence that Miller has not overcome his fears. The idea, presumably, is that he should have fought that bully instead of backing down and being humiliated. Fine. But what I want to know is, When the bully died, did he get to move forward? One would think so, because the bully sure wasn’t afraid. And as I noted above, the tribunal in Judgment City seems to care nothing about moral worth, only whether one has overcome fear.
This is not addressed in the movie, no doubt because of the self-satisfying myth that so many people cling to, which is that bullies are cowards. But this is just an imaginary revenge against bullies. I knew a few bullies when I was young, and none of them were cowards. Sure, they often picked on kids who were smaller and weaker, but they were just as likely to take on someone twice their size and even beat the crap out of him. So, from what I could tell, these bullies would definitely have been allowed to “move forward,” because they had undeniably overcome their fears.
In contrast to Miller, there is Julia (Meryl Streep), who breezes through her trial, during which we see her getting her children safely out of a burning house and then rushing back in to save the cat. Needless to say, she gets to move forward.
Meanwhile, back in the jungle. That is, Miller and Julia go to a place where they can see what they were in their past lives. Miller sees himself as a black African primitive who is running through the jungle from a lion. I guess that is why Miller had to be reincarnated instead of being allowed to move forward, because when he was that primitive man in Africa, he was unable to overcome his fear of lions. He should have stood his ground and kicked its ass.
Foster presents more evidence against Miller. A friend of his once gave him some inside information about a new watch company, telling him to invest $10,000 in the company, which is all the money Miller had at that time. We won’t quibble about the fact that it is illegal to profit from inside information, because most people don’t really regard that as a crime, especially when they stand a chance to take advantage of such information. More to the point, when someone gives you some “inside information” about a company and tells you to invest all you have in it, that is a damn good time to be afraid. Sure, the company turned out to be Casio, so with hindsight we can see he would have made 37 million dollars on the deal, but most of the time such information turns out to be worthless. Nevertheless, Miller is accused of letting his fear keep him from making a killing in the stock market.
It gets worse. It is pointed out that Miller subsequently invested the $10,000 in cattle and lost it all. But does he get credit for having the courage to invest the money in cattle? No. Apparently, you only get credit for having the courage to make good investments, not for having the courage to make bad investments. Well, I’m glad they cleared that up. Now we all know how we should invest our money.
As the pièce de résistance, Foster presents a scene from what Miller did while in Judgment City. In particular, on the previous evening, Julia and Miller confessed their love for each other. She invited him to spend the night with her. But he didn’t want to, because he believed their relationship was just perfect the way it was, and he was afraid that sex would spoil it. Once again, Foster points out, Miller has failed to overcome his fears and he does not deserve to move forward. Well, all I can say is that I have known several women who did not want to have sex with me because they said it would spoil our friendship, so I guess they will not be moving forward either. I, on the other, was fearless in the matter, more than willing to risk the friendship to satisfy my lust, so I guess I will be moving forward.