Celestial plot is amusing, but out of director Albert Brooks' league

April 05, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Defending Your Life'

Starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep.

Directed by Albert Brooks.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG.

** 1/2 An old salesman's adage is: You gotta know the territory. In Defending Your Life," Albert Brooks takes this concept to an ethereal level. The thrust of the film is: You gotta know the purgatory.

But Brooks, whose subversive and subtle sensibility turned 1985's "Lost in America" into almost certainly the funniest movie of its decade, isn't quite sure what he's doing here. It's as if he started with a concept whose consequences he hadn't worked out and when he got to them, he had no idea what to do.

The concept is inventive: purgatory as Columbia, Md.

That's right. A next world that's bland, tasteful and efficient, its pleasant landscape strewn with low-density office buildings that look like ice trays. The layout is complete to trams, open space and discreet but pervasive illumination. In fact there's only one difference between this place and the dream town on the Little Patuxent: You can eat meat here.

It's typical of Brooks that he seizes upon the cheery image of well-scrubbed corporate utopia, ubiquitous from a thousand malls and frontage road developments as his vision of the next world. He even peoples the place with some executive types that seem recruited from the Council Bluffs, Iowa, Rotary.

Brooks casts himself as the hapless Daniel Miller, a meek advertising executive who has achieved the ultimate, he thinks, when he finally makes enough to buy a BMW ragtop. On his first drive, he takes a meeting with a bus and ends up in, as it is called, Judgment City.

Now, in transit between earth and the universe, Daniel Miller must go on trial and defend his life. If he's found acceptable, he goes on to a higher form of life somewhere else in the universe; if not, he must go back for another miserable go-round on earth.

Much of the incidental humor is brilliant. Brooks' Miller is constantly befuddled at what all the others take for granted. He alone is emotionally engaged in the drama of his life, while all the others treat it as business as usual. They just don't get what he's so upset about. The movie also artfully dramatizes the subtle self-hatred of neurotic urban men: Wherever he turns, Daniel Miller finds men more confident, women more beautiful, lives lived more spectacularly. There's a subtle subtext here that may may not be Jewish; it's certainly hilarious.

But the fulcrum upon which the story turns is somewhat under-imagined. Miller's life will be examined for "fear," and if he's found overly fearful, he'll be consigned to return. But Brooks has no really incisive idea of what "fear" is and the episodes from Miller's life that he dramatizes don't add up to much. They certainly don't create a life. And is Brooks saying that only the truly fearless -- a few psychopaths might qualify -- deserve better? Or, when he says fear, does he really mean "repression," but doesn't know the word?

In fact, the whole "fear" thing is not merely vague but debilitatingly infantile: This is a teen-age boy's view of the universe. It just doesn't engage adult sensibilities. Self-help tip for Albert Brooks: Get a life down here first! Heaven can wait.

Far more amusing is Miller's flirtation and ultimate confession of love for another soul in transit, played with antic charm by Meryl Streep. Watching Streep suck down an endless strand of pasta is one of 1991's most satisfying pleasures. Would that the movie that held it was as consistently enjoyable.

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