Defending Your Life

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Defending Your Life Movie Poster Image
Priceless comedy with a message-rich heart, mild swearing.
  • PG
  • 1991
  • 111 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Live a life of bravery. Promotes courage, integrity, selflessness, and a willingness to risk and experience life to the fullest. Strongly discourages decision-making and behavior based on fear, shame, or embarrassment. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Leading male character -- initially insecure, self-absorbed, living an "unexamined life" -- is challenged to be brave, insightful, and charitable. Featured heroine is an ideal of loving openness, passion for life, and nobility. Strong female roles; ethnic diversity.

Violence

A bus and car appear to have a head-on collision (offscreen). Though we never see the aftermath of the accident, the driver has been killed, and his post-death experience is the core of the movie's plot. All other action scenes are in flashback: childhood bullying, a brief tussle between classmates, and parents arguing spitefully. A man crashes a snowmobile, rolls. A home is on fire, and a mother runs in to rescue a pet.

Sex

A couple discusses whether or not to spend the night together. A few sexual references ("had sex," "all nude," "better than sex," a strip club, adult books). A couple kisses several times.

Language

Occasional profanity: "horses--t," "hell," "butt," "piss," "balls," "fart," "penis envy," "damn."

Consumerism

A BMW automobile is featured. Other products mentioned: Casio watch, Ford.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Wine, sake are consumed in social settings. Reference to a character being "stoned" in the past. Heroin mentioned.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Defending Your Life is a comedy-romance set in Judgment City, a short-term way station for the recently deceased. During each subject's stopover visit, he or she will be vetted and judged to determine whether or not they will "move forward" or be sent back to Earth to try again. It's all a matter of how "well" each person lived his or her most recent life. It's not a religious movie and has no religious content, but it is a fantasy about an afterlife. A few scenes include conflict or action (spoiler alert): Our hero dies in a car-bus accident (off camera), a very young child watches his parents argue bitterly, a school bully intimidates and fights, there's a snowboard accident, and there's a daring rescue during a home fire. There are a few sexual references (an all-nude strip club, adult books) and some mild innuendo and jokes ("I had sex with Ben Franklin"), and a couple discusses staying overnight together. Profanity includes "horses--t" and "balls." Expect social drinking in a few scenes, a reference to "getting stoned" in the past, and one mention of heroin. Because the comedy is based on real human experience, it's as relevant today as it was when it was made in 1991. Messages are life-affirming and strong and delivered with humor and insight. Best for teens and great for families with older kids to watch together.

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What's the story?

As DEFENDING YOUR LIFE opens, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks in top form) is an ad man who is almost making it. At least, he's successful enough to buy himself a BMW for his birthday. So what if it's not the BMW of his dreams? But the thrill doesn't last long. One misstep at the wheel, and Daniel finds himself in a white gown, on a tram filled with the elderly, in a place he doesn't recognize. When he realizes that he's no longer among the living on Earth, it stuns him, but what a place this Judgment City is -- beautiful and calm, with great food and people taking care of his every whim -- something he never expected!  Daniel certainly didn't expect that he'd be teamed up with a "defender" (Rip Torn, enjoying every line) and find himself in a courtroom with judges and a "prosecutor" (the wonderful Lee Grant) where he has to defend his life. Will he move forward to an existence in which brains are fully utilized and citizens reap full happiness and tranquility? Or will he be sent back to give Earth to give it another try? How will all this affect the fact that in Judgment City he's already met Julia (a radiant Meryl Streep), with whom he's fallen instantly in love? Daniel has only a few days to make his case. In that time, his defender will defend his life; film of critical moments over the years will be assessed; and a decision will come down that will change the course of his future.

Is it any good?

Watch this ingenious comic gem for the laughs and romance, then let its inspiring, joyful wisdom cast its spell. Albert Brooks has constructed and delivered what may be a perfect combination of humor and commentary on the human condition. Five-star writing, performances, and direction serve the story and the message. Comic highlights include a visit to the "Past Lives Pavilion"; sumptuous, all-you-can-eat festivals of food; and Brooks' canny ability to portray the self-absorbed loser's magnificent awakening. Defending Your Life is an unforgettable movie that gets better with repeat viewings. Great for teens mature enough to get Brooks' premise: that life is at its best when lived bravely, generously, and with gratitude.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Defending Your Life's central message. Does it relate to your life? Think of some experiences in which you might behave differently after having made this journey with Daniel. What do you think writer-director-star Albert Brooks wanted you to take away from his film?

  • How is this movie an example of "character-based" comedy as opposed to "situation" comedy?

  • Was Brooks successful in uniting comedy and romance and delivering a meaningful life lesson? Even though the movie is a fantasy, how did he make it seem real to his audience?

  • How do the characters in Defending Your Life demonstrate courage and integrity? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

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