Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Defending Your Life (1991)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Defending Your Life (1991)

In writer/director/actor Albert Brooks' fantasy romantic comedy, it told about life after death in an anteroom (or purgatory); it was similar in plot to Ferenc Molnár's 1909 Hungarian play "Liliom" that became the basis for Rodgers-Hammerstein's 1945 Broadway musical Carousel, that also became a feature film in 1956; another film that examined the afterlife was What Dreams May Come (1998):

  • in the opening scene of the philosophical, mature, offbeat and witty existential tale, an Everyman character on his 39th birthday was being celebrated after almost 10 years of work; successful, divorced yuppie LA advertising chief executive Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) thanked his co-workers at Foote, Cone & Belding: ("So, you're great people to work with, and this is a great present, and I wish I could squeeze all of you into one pretty woman. (laughter) And if you'd like to go to my office, I'll try. (laughter) Thanks a lot")
  • on the way to pick up a new black BMW convertible (a $39,000 gift to himself) in a co-worker's (James Eckhouse) Jeep, he made fun of the Jeep owner for having "a battering ram - this is what Patton drove" rather than an urban vehicle; he also told how he wanted to spend his birthday alone driving in his car: "You were born alone, you should celebrate it. Celebrate aloneness. That's what birthdays are for"
  • as he drove away from the dealership in his new BMW 325i, he was distracted while listening to Barbra Streisand's rendition of "Something's Coming" from West Side Story (1961) on the car's CD player; his birthday gifts (a pile of music CDs) from the office party fell to the floor of the car, and as he reached down to retrieve them, his lack of attention caused his car to swerve into the other lane of oncoming traffic and directly into a city bus; he screamed as he realized he was about to experience a fatal crash, but it was too late
  • in the next scene under the title credits, he woke up and found himself in a gleaming, post-death way-station known as "Judgment City" with familiar surroundings; in an other-worldly, bureaucratic setting where most of the film then took place over the next five days, he began his afterlife dressed in a hospital gown while pushed in a wheelchair by heavenly attendants down a long corridor with other newly-dead elderly individuals; with them, he was placed on an open-air tram that took him downtown to the Continental Hotel for the night in a standard hotel-room
  • after resting in a hotel for a good night's sleep, Daniel was phoned by his defense lawyer - the patronizing Defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) from a large downtown defense law-firm; later, it was stated that it handled "half of the United States' dead. That's about 2,500 people a day"; he was instructed to take the tram to his office to meet together; in a nutshell, he explained: "You're here to defend your life, and I'm going to help you"
  • he also informed Daniel that he could eat whatever he wanted in Judgment City without gaining weight at the buffets, and he could start with breakfast: ("It's not only the best food you'll ever have, but you can eat all you want....As long as you're here, you can eat all you want. It won't affect you physically, and you won't gain weight")

TV Game Show: "Your Biggest Fear"

Ted's House of Buffet TV Advertisement for All-You-Can-Eat
  • on one of the TV channels, Daniel watched a prophetic game-show titled "Your Biggest Fear" with a moderator (James MacKrell) who challenged two contestants (Wil Albert and Sage Allen) to face their greatest fear; another channel advertised and tauted "All-You-Can-Eat": "Want to eat a lot? Ted's House of Buffet says you can have everything you see, plus more. Our chefs will cook it, but they won't look"; the Weather Channel forecast 74 degrees and "perfectly clear" skies "all the time"
  • before eating at the Continental Cafe, he read the menu that asked: "Good Morning, How Shall Ye Be Judged? Take the Eggs, I Pray Thee"; after ordering a breakfast of a cheese omelet and OJ from a cheerful waitress (Mary Pat Gleason), he was quickly served a personally-made meal, and then was hurriedly dispatched to a tram to take him downtown to the Defenders Circle to meet with his lawyer; an elderly woman (Maxine Elliott) on the tram asked about how he died: "Oh, so young! AIDS?"
  • he was met at the tram by Diamond's assistant Helen (Marilyn Rockafellow) who assured Daniel that everything was designed to be "stress-free" and as much like Earth as possible; in a meeting with Diamond in his office, Daniel was told that he was not in either Heaven or Hell; Diamond joked: "Actually, there is no hell. Although I hear Los Angeles is getting pretty close"
  • Daniel was informed about an upcoming 5-day trial to examine and evaluate his entire recorded lifetime, and determine if he had made the most of his life, become smarter, and learned from his mistakes so that he could "move forward"; Diamond also told Daniel that earthlings, including Daniel, only used about 3-5% of their brain capacity; he explained: "When you use more than five per cent of your brain, you don’t want to be on Earth, believe me. Well, not that your take-out places are lovely, but there are more exciting destinations for smarter people"; with his "little brain," Daniel was told he often dealt with fear ("Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything… Real feelings, true happiness, real joy")
  • during a process of self-examination and exposure during a "trial," Daniel would have to defend his life's actions, and would be judged to determine whether he would be advancing to a new phase of existence (Heaven) or heading back to live a reincarnated life all over again on Earth, to advance himself and become smarter and less fearful; when Daniel worried if he didn't advance, he was told: "Eventually, they'll throw you away"; Daniel's lawyer revealed that he had already endured 20 similar trials, making Daniel label himself as "the dunce of the universe"
  • it was further explained how Daniel's tenacious prosecutor was Lena Foster (Lee Grant), aka "The Dragon Lady," who was determined to examine and prove that Daniel's life had been completely guided by fear; during a 4-day trial period, nine days or episodes from Daniel's life would be evaluated
  • at an outdoor garden restaurant with Diamond, he sampled some of his lawyer's meatloaf lunch order and spit it out, as Diamond mused: "A little like horses--t, huh?"; Daniel reacted: 'Eww! This is what smart people eat?"; during their meal, Daniel neglected to answer Diamond's question about his generosity and donations toward charity and others
  • that evening, Daniel was entertained at The Bomb Shelter - a comedy club with an audience of the recently-deceased, where he was asked by an unfunny comedian (Roger Behr) performing on-stage: "How'd you die?", Daniel retorted: "On stage, like you!" - and his response actually brought laughter from the audience; Daniel met another recently-dead fellow soul - a youthful, kind individual named Julia (Meryl Streep); he remarked that the two of them were among the few souls-in-transit that were under one hundred years old
  • they compared circumstances as they strolled around the hotel grounds at night and became acquainted with light-hearted conversation; she appeared optimistic about her 4-day court evaluation and advancement due to her seemingly-perfect life, but the anxiety-ridden Daniel was not as hopeful: ("I'll write you from hell"); she told how she was married and had two children (7 year-old Stephanie and adopted 9 year-old Adam); she was housed in a luxury Majestic Hotel reflecting her personal advancement - more upscale than Daniel's hotel: ("Obviously, the place for people who weren't generous and didn't adopt anybody")

Julia and Daniel Meet and Become Acquainted at the Comedy Club

Strolling in the Garden and Comparing Circumstances
  • the next day in the high rise Judgment Center, Daniel's 4-day courtroom-like "trial" in the afterlife limbo was conducted in a dark room before his tough prosecutor Lena Foster and two presiding judges (George D. Wallace and Lillian Lehman); Lena opened by arguing that he had always been guided, plagued and held back by fear and risk-aversion throughout his lifetimes; if he didn't pass the court's ruling, he would be returned to another reincarnated life on Earth "to work on this problem"
  • on a realistic 3D movie screen, Lena played a flashbacked series of Daniel's past as a young 11 year-old boy (Raffi Di Blasio), refusing to fight for himself against a school bully (Kristopher Kent Hill); she insisted it represented fear, although Diamond counter-argued that Daniel was only being restrained; a second video showed a very young Daniel (Matthew Scharch) witnessing his parents (S. Scott Bullock and Carol Bivins) having a violent argument over money; a third video showed how Daniel played a part in covering for male classmate Steve on probation who was threatened with expulsion from school for stealing books; he offered his art supplies to the boy and then lied to his teacher Mr. Wadworth (Gary Ballard); that evening, he "crumbled" and confessed to his father that he had lied to protect Steve, and the boy was expelled anyway two days later

Daniel as 11 Year Old With an Intimidating Bully

Daniel as Infant With Arguing Parents

Daniel Covering For Classmate Steve
  • after the first day of testimony, Daniel wandered on the streets to a sushi restaurant where he was warmly greeted by the three Japanese chefs and served sake and tuna; after Daniel admitted he was having nine days of his life reviewed, another pudgy-faced patron named Frank (Ken Thorley) told how his trial consisted of 15 days; Frank was shot in the head in a hunting accident, and had been employed as an adult book seller; he claimed he had coined the phrase "All-Nude" for his strip club near the LA airport that "doubled business in a month"
  • during the second day of the "trial," Daniel was upset that he was to be defended for the day by Diamond's replacement lawyer Dick Stanley (Buck Henry) who claimed he used 51% of his brain; during further sessions in the courtroom, more of Daniel's "misjudgments" and lack of courage were surveyed; Lena presented how the overly-cautious and fearful 24 year-old Daniel had been given a solid investment tip, but declined to invest $10,000 of his own money on profitable Casio consumer electronics stock (that would now be worth $37.2 million); Daniel was frustrated with criticism of his financial choices and judgment: "I can't believe that the whole point of the universe is, is to make money"; it was also shown that Daniel, who had rehearsed salary negotiations for his advertising executive job with his wife (Susan Walters), had "caved" (due to fear) and failed to negotiate for $65,000 and immediately accepted a low-ball offer of $49,000 from his boss
  • Lena then reviewed Daniel's past history and argued that it was filled with many bad decisions, anxiety, blunders and mishaps: (164 in total over a 12 year period), and how Daniel made continual efforts to avoid confrontation and neglect opportunities presented to him: (Lena: "Half of them fear-based, half of them just stupid"), i.e., disasters including gargling with a bottle of Prell, being taken advantage of by used car salesmen, misusing an electric circular saw and a chainsaw causing accidents, falling off a roof while installing a TV antenna, etc.
  • in her own trial, Julia was being defended by black lawyer Sam (Leonard O. Turner) - causing Daniel to be unduly jealous; Daniel proceeded with Julia to the "Hall of Records" in the Disneyland-like Past Lives Pavilion and were led to a private viewing room for the next show of peoples' former lives (a maximum of five past lives were available); all of them received a greeting by holographic host Shirley MacLaine (Herself in a cameo appearance; she was cast due to her well-publicized belief in reincarnation); in one of the viewing booths, an off-screen woman exclaimed when she saw Shirley: "Oh my God!"
  • an old gray-haired man (Hal Landon Jr.) saw that his past incarnation was as a prim young Victorian girl named Elizabeth (Noley Thornton) - and he reacted with disgust ("What the hell is this?"); another elderly overweight woman (Ida Lee) was depicted in her past as a sumo wrestler (Glen Chin) - and she screamed; Daniel looked in his past's mirror, and found out that in a former life, he was a tribal native (James Ekim) who was fleeing for his life to avoid being "dinner" for a hungry, growling lion; Julia learned that in a past life, she had been Prince Valiant on horseback with a sword; other past lives were as a whaler and tailor; Daniel's only other viewed past life was as a dressmaker; on their tram ride back to Judgment City, he said he felt assured and OK being with her
In the Past Lives Pavilion

Beginning to Fall in Love

"Holographic" Pavilion Host Shirley MacLaine

Old Man as Young Victorian Girl

Old Woman as Sumo Wrestler

Daniel as a Tribal Native in His Former Life

Julia as Prince Valiant
  • while playing miniature golf together, Julia shared that she had accidentally died due to tripping, causing a lethal head injury on cement and drowning in a swimming pool; at the end of the evening, they made plans to have dinner at 5 pm after their next third day on trial; upon parting, they kissed - revealing that they were falling in love with each other
  • in Daniel's third day at trial, Lena presented evidence that the self-doubting, anxious 34 year-old Daniel lost out on career advancement when due to stage fright, he opted out of an important speech to a large audience when representing West Coast advertising agencies to the Ford Motor Company; he was saved by a report of a gas leak that cleared the room; to counteract Lena's claims, Diamond defended Daniel's courage when he saved himself by walking three miles with a broken leg after a snow-mobile crash at Big Bear, CA; in a hilarious monologue, Daniel explained how he hated snowmobiles and never rode one again
  • after his 3rd hearing was over, Daniel listened in on Julia's enjoyable life-review trial where she was judged by a prosecutor (Cliff Einstein) and two other judges (Rachel Bard and Newell Alexander); she was lauded and praised for rescuing her two children (Shana Ballard and Chris Macris) - and the family cat (in a daring return) - from their burning house
  • during dinner together at an Italian restaurant, their helpful waiter Eduardo (James Manis) brought Daniel nine pies, each representing the days or episodes of his life being examined during his trial; Daniel nervously realized that his prosecutor was watching him; Eduardo further embarrassed Daniel by offering to also bring him steaks for take-out
  • after dinner in her hotel's lobby during their last night together, Julia admitted to Daniel that she felt "effortless" with him in their relationship so far; Daniel was invited by Julia to spend the night together ("Want to spend the night with me?"), but although he wanted to ("More than anything else in the world...I don't think I can. I don't think I should....This is already better than any sex I've ever had, ever! And, I don't want to screw it up, literally"), he refused due to his fears of judgment and general paranoia: ("I just don't want to be judged anymore... I'm just tired of being judged"); he feared that he would fail the last day's defense of his life's review, while she would be successful and proceed on to another place; they kissed and sadly bid each other good-bye

Julia Admitting Their Relationship So Far Was "Effortless"

Julia to Daniel: "Want to spend the night with me?"

Daniel Declining to Spend the Night With Julia
  • shortly later upon arrival at his own hotel, he had second-thoughts and attempted to call Julia, but he didn't know her last name, and there were two Julias; he left a message with the operator for her: "Tell them both that I love them more than life itself and I've never met anybody like them and I'll miss them forever and ever"
  • in the last day at trial during final summation arguments, Lena used Daniel's previous night's fearful refusal of Julia's invitation as further evidence against him, to prove that his fears again kept him from "becoming a remarkable citizen of the universe"; Daniel even boldly admitted: "I was afraid"; Diamond's counter-argument was that Daniel was only being caring and thoughtful about "another human being's feelings"; in less than 30 minutes, the judgment was rendered - the two judges decided to return Daniel to Earth: ("You're going back!")

Extracting Himself From His Tram

Dodging Other Trams

Julia Reaching Out to Him
  • as he was departing on his "Destination Tram," the self-confident Julia called out to him from another celestial tram heading in the opposite direction toward her next stage; without fear for his life or hesitation, the love-sick Daniel bravely and defiantly broke open his seat belt buckle, forced open his tram doors, and ran to her; he made extraordinary efforts to try to be with her, risking being run over, electrocution and death as he exited his tram, located her tram and banged on her tram doors: ("I love you...I won't let you go!...Julia, wait for me!")
  • Lena and the two judges who were watching on closed circuit TV at the Judgment Center were asked by Diamond: "Brave enough for you?" - a decision was rendered to allow the two to be reunited and together ("Let him go") as the film concluded on a romantic note - they embraced, kissed, and journeyed together toward the next phase of their existence

39th Birthday Party Speech by Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) to Co-Workers

Distracted Driving Death - Lethal Collision With Bus

On the Tram in Judgment City to the Continental Hotel

Daniel's Defense Lawyer Bob Diamond (Rip Torn)

Ordering Breakfast at the Hotel's Continental Cafe

A Concerned Daniel with Diamond, Learning About How His Previous Lifetime Would Now Be Examined - And If He Failed, He Would Be Sent Back to Earth

Lunch With Diamond

The Bomb Shelter Club

Julia (Meryl Streep) at the Comedy Club

Daniel's Retort to Comedian On Stage

Daniel on Trial at the Judgment Center

Daniel's Prosecutor ("Dragon Lady") Lena Foster (Lee Grant)

Daniel's "Trial" Before Two Judges - A Thorough Review of His Life Via Nine Episodes

Frank at Sushi Restaurant

Daniel's 2nd Day Replacement Lawyer Dick Stanley (Buck Henry)

24 Year-Old Daniel Unwisely Fearful of Investing in Casio Stock

Daniel With His Wife (Susan Walters) Rehearsing Salary Negotiations For His Advertising Job

Julia's Defense Lawyer Sam (Leonard O. Turner)

The Past Lives Pavilion

Their First Kiss After Two Days of Trial

Daniel's Stage Fright Before an Audience

Daniel's Monologue About His Hatred for Snowmobiles

Julia's Brave Rescue of Her Two Children from Their Burning House

Helpful Waiter Eduardo (James Manis) During Dinner at an Italian Restaurant

Daniel On His Way to Tram Back to Earth

Daniel and Julia Reunited in the Uplifting Conclusion


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