Filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks‘ profoundly amusing look at the afterlife debuts on the Blu-ray format with a resurrected high definition visual presentation in Defending Your Life (Criterion Collection, not rated, 1.85:1 aspect ratio, 111 minutes, $39.95).
The 1991 film starred Mr. Brooks as flawed advertising executive Daniel Miller dying in a traffic accident and ushered to Judgment City where he is literally placed on trial to determine his worthiness to ultimately move on to a better place or get sent back to Earth.
His attorney Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) has nine days to fight his case that hinges on proof of Daniel’s ability to conquer his fears, but they must battle against aggressive prosecutor Lena “The Dragon Lady” Foster (Lee Grant) in a duel partly played out with clips covering his entire life.
However, just as his hereafter hearing takes a turn for the worse, death gets complicated when he meets the perfect human specimen Julia (Meryl Streep) and finds a stronger romantic relationship when deceased than ever found in his life.
The cast shines throughout and is supplemented by an appearance of legend Buck Henry as a too quiet co-counsel as the cerebral comedy mixes laugh-out-loud moments, often tied to all-you-can-eat restaurants, with some generous, food-for-thought philosophy.
The 4K transfer was digitally restored from the 35 mm original camera negative supervised by Mr. Brooks. The result is a natural, film source presentation filled with more film grain that I would like, but the overall color is sharp and detail is not lacking. Reference the screen-filling scene in which Daniel has a snowmobiling accident in the snowy and bright outdoors.
Best extras: Criterion, known for a generous supply of bonus content for each of its releases, sightly under delivers here with only a trio of featurettes.
First, and best of the bunch, is a 28-minute, socially distanced discussion between Mr. Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide from late last year.
They discuss movie specifics such as the opening scene (originally discouraged by the Warner executives); Mr. Brook’s mission to take religion out of the afterlife; the design of Judgment City; musical score; and variations on the ending.
More detailed points include what happened to the nine pies in a famous restaurant scene, how they made baby Daniel cry and Mr. Brooks‘ first meeting of Miss Streep at a party hosted by Carrie Fisher. Of course, throughout, the 73-year-old, acerbic comedian is as funny as ever.
Next, viewers get 12 minutes of archival interviews with Mr. Brooks, Miss Grant and Torn recorded for the talk show “Crook and Chase” in 1991. They separately dissect their roles and the origins of casting and working with the director and thoughts on the afterlife, but mainly Mr. Brooks describes his process of shooting, writing and acting in the same film.
Finally, critic and theologian Donna Bowman takes 21 minutes to dive into the movie’s deep meaning, touching on grand themes of the human condition, morality and judgement.
The majority of her time is spent offering a lesson in existentialism and even comparing Mr. Brooks to Jean Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard, However, one thing I learned is that analyzing religion and comedy is a fool’s errand. She talks and therefore I ignore.
Additionally, the Blu-ray package has a 12-page, foldout paper insert looking like a faux visitor’s guide to Judgment City. The insert contains amusing advertisements, a brief explanation of the film’s restoration and an essay on “Defending Your Life” from director Ari Aster adapted from a longer magazine piece about Mr. Brooks‘ movies.