The Set of 400: #50 – My Favorite Spectral Comedy Club

Today! Because if you really wanna make this place feel like Earth, you should open a few of those mini-malls –

Defending Your Life (1991)

Directed by Albert Brooks (x2)

Starring Albert Brooks (x5), Meryl Streep (x3), Rip Torn (x4), Lee Grant, Buck Henry (x4), George D. Wallace, Lillian Lehman, Susan Walters, Shirley MacLaine (x2), Ethan Embry (x2), James Eckhouse (x2), Gary Beach, Mary Pat Gleason, Nurit Koppel

Why aren’t there more movies set in the afterlife? This seems like a setting rife with possibilities, given the complete lack of agreement what the hell is sitting out there waiting for us, if anything. Seriously, we’ve got the hyper complexity of NBC’s The Good Place, a bunch of movies dealing with some manner of reincarnation – Heaven Can Wait/Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Down to Earth, Oh! Heavenly Dog – or ghost visitations – Beetlejuice, Topper – but very few actually set in a heaven/hell/purgatory. Is this too troubling for audiences? Was a survey conducted discovering people don’t mind tales of trying to right your life’s wrongs and winning heaven as a prize, but not the actual heaven part?

Defending Your Life, in fairness, doesn’t cover this either – but it also isn’t set on Earth. I guess heaven has no conflicts inherent in it. The Good Place bends over backwards coming up with twists to prolong the story – and to marvelous effect, I might add – but couldn’t we just get a movie set in the great beyond with a parade of CGI guest stars from eons past? You know what, forget I mentioned it – I’ve got whole sections of my long-unfinished Choose Your Own Adventure style book dealing with this very thing. Maybe it’s time to break that out onto its own.

Available for pre-sale now, coming in 2026 (still editing)

Albert Brooks’ take on the big dirt nap is exactly what the title implies – his recently deceased Daniel Miller has a sort of trial examining his time on Earth to determine whether he should get into heaven. While this conceit is interesting enough, with a nice driving reflection on the general difficulties of life and weights of being a decent person, the non-courtroom-y Judgment City scenes are the true fantasy fun of the film. From the great Past Lives Pavilion to his terrific interplay with fellow newbie to judgment, Meryl Streep’s Julia, the details and creative choices are spot on, and one-after-another hilarious. And yet, this high concept setting is never distracting from the simple but strong plot – did Daniel overcome his fears while alive, proving his transcending of human issues, and earn a place in heaven?

This is apparently my favorite movie from one of the most represented years on this list – the 15th and final flick from 1991! Virtually all of these movies won inclusion thanks to their incessant cable repetition in the early part of that decade, and the fact that only one cracked the top 100 further illustrates how just showing up can sometimes make all the difference. I believe there were a few genuinely solid films from ’91, but it rightfully gets dwarfed by the major slates of pictures in the years around it. So I feel kinda bad that so much of this list has been occupied by this year, which could only manage 50th as its high water mark, but hell, 1992 has the exact same issue. 18 movies on the list, one in the top 100. Huh! Still!

For all the great performances from the leads – Brooks, Streep, Torn, and Grant are just wonderful – I’m going with Shirley MacLaine, cameoing as herself, for film MVP! Way to have a sense of humor about yourself, Shirley!

“In a moment, you will be asked to place your right hand on the plate next to you. An image of yourself in a former life will soon appear.”

Brooks joins the directing Two-Timers, thanks to #334 Lost in America, and the acting Five-Timers, with Lost in America, #234 The Simpsons Movie, #172 Out of Sight, and #331 Twilight Zone. Plus it’s high time we welcome American hero Rip Torn back to the list – 326 movies have passed since he punched his Three-Timers ticket in #376 Men in Black, when he became the first person joining the club. Rip Torn!

I’m not even gonna mention Norman Mailer this time

Coming tomorrow! Remember what the MPAA says! Horrific, Deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words!

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