Heard through the grapevine that Metrograph would be hosting an Albert Brooks retrospective, so today, I ventured out to Ludlow Street to catch a screening of Defending Your Life.
“Cringe comedy” tends to be more painfully embarrassing than actually funny, but in my opinion, Brooks is the undisputed master of the oft-misunderstood sub-genre. Because he seems to primarily target his own flaws and shortcomings (or what he perceives them to be, anyway), his efforts come off as bitterly, brutally honest self-criticism, rather than the typical mean-spirited mockery of the “other"—which has the uncomfortable effect of making his insecure, neurotic, and thoroughly unlikable "heroes” all the more relatable. Nobody wants to believe that they’ve behaved like a character in a Brooks movie at some point or another… but we all have, shameful as it is to admit.
Defending Your Life distills Brooks’ usual thematic concerns down to their purest form, chronicling the struggles of a recently-deceased pushover as he is forced to answer for all of the selfish, cowardly decisions he’s made over the course of his mortal existence. Should he fail to prove that he’s learned from his experiences (and is therefore worthy of ascending to the next stage of the afterlife), he will be sent back to Earth to try again—with the added risk that his soul will eventually be “used up” by the reincarnation process. The result is pretty standard Brooks fare (a lot of pleading, bargaining, blubbering, and excuse-making, every minute of it as hilarious as it is unbearably awkward)… with one unexpected (but not unwelcome) development: the potential for redemption, personified by Meryl Streep’s positively angelic leading lady, who inspires our hapless protagonist to make a sincere attempt at self-improvement, instead of simply searching for loopholes or a clever way to cheat the system. Consequently, it’s the first of Brooks’ films I’ve encountered (a relatively narrow frame of reference, I confess) that could possibly be described as “uplifting"—which, judging by the audience’s reaction, also makes it his biggest crowd-pleaser.
[Originally written October 6, 2018.]