Defending Your Life – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

I don’t exactly keep a list of films I need to have on Blu-ray (let alone 4K), but Albert Brooks’ wonderful afterlife romantic-comedy-fantasy film, Defending Your Life, is one I’ve been waiting for a long time to have. Now, not unlike the way the Criterion Collection finally delivered my long-sought-after Ghost Dog Blu-ray, I know have Defending Your Life available in a seemingly definitive home release, and it does not disappoint. Featuring a new 4K digital restoration and a nice collection of extras, one of my favorite movies has been given fine treatment in its after-theatrical life.


Brooks star as Daniel Miller, an ad exec who dies in a car accident on his 39th birthday. He’s then sent off to Judgement City, a purgatory-like waiting zone where the recently deceased must attend a tribunal of sorts to defend their lives by watching footage of various experiences of their time on earth. During Daniel’s four-day stay at Judgement City (where everything is glorious and you can eat however much you want), he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a woman who seemingly lived the perfect life. The two quickly form a bond, but the question becomes whether Daniel has done enough to move on to the next stage in existence.

I’ve watched this movie many times since I was younger, and while it remains a hilarious take on what happens after one dies, it has certainly grown on me in terms of how much the allegory works on an emotional level. I’ll get back to the comedy, but Brooks’ perspective, for this film’s purposes, speaks to the anxious nature of how we live our lives. That goes such a long way in a film that doesn’t have to do as much world-building as it does. But it’s because Brooks thought out the realm that is Judgement City that we have a film closer to something like A Matter of Life and Death than others may expect.

But shouldn’t people expect this from Brooks? At times the comedian/filmmaker has been credited as a west coast Woody Allen, and that’s not a bad comparison looking at his work. As a west coast Jew, myself, I’m all for bringing a level of wit, subversion, and broad humor into any comedy. This film, along with Lost in America, Modern Romance, and Mother, among others, have a way of stringing together many hysterical bits that go right along with the more subtle moments and big ideas that inform some level of drama or satire. Defending Your Life is my favorite film of his, precisely because Brooks can capitalize so much on making an effective comedy and romance while bringing in some great deeper thoughts that really resonate.

Much of Daniel’s trial is focused on whether or not he was able to conquer his fears. While Daniel hilariously believes it has more to do with not making enough money, the different flashbacks to periods of his life (funny as they are) show a man who doubts himself and loses out on opportunities as a result. However, the film helps to counter these moments with support from Lee Grant as Daniel’s prosecutor, and an incredible Rip Torn as Bob Diamond, Daniel’s defense attorney (this role is so genuinely warm and funny that Torn would go on to play the key role of Artie on The Larry Sanders Show). Both speak to Daniel’s life on Earth, allowing further context and more organic humor to come out of these moments.

Additionally, Daniel’s time spent with Julia shows Brooks at his most winning as a romantic lead and Streep at her most natural. As much praise as the Oscar-winner gets for her many acclaimed performances in prestigious films, these contemporary roles show how much natural ability she has beyond accents and such (Adaptation is another brilliant example). Together with Brooks, the film finds many moments where the chemistry just shines through in developing wonderful and often quite humorous moments.

That comedy also extends to Daniel’s observations of Judgement City, letting Brooks do what he is so naturally good at (even with the home-field advantage of him writing and directing the movie). Because of Judgment City’s fantastic nature, it is a lot of fun to see someone so grounded go after the little details he notices during his time in this purgatory. However, it’s never mean. The film accomplishes a lot by simply wanting to show how one can be a better person if they try, and that can go a long way when dealing with potentially weighty themes.

There’s still comedy abound in this film from all over the place. Small roles occupied by performers such as Buck Henry add a lot to a given moment. Further exploration of this afterlife realm proves to deliver some great sight gags. Plus, those flashbacks feature some all-timer moments as far as small sketches for Brooks to have a lot of fun with. Putting all of this inside a story that so effectively delves into not necessarily what it all means but what sort of life to pursue (without almost no emphasis on a specific religion) makes for a film that never fails to bring me a sense of joy.



Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Details: This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, California.

Clarity/Detail: Being so familiar with the DVD at this point, the obvious amount of work done to restore this image is excellent. Even for a modestly-budgeted comedy, there’s so much to enjoy in looking at a studio comedy with enough work put in to build a certain kind of look. Shot by Allen Daviau, the cinematography behind E.T., The Color Purple, and Bugsy, among other projects, the film has plenty to work with as far as the detail work goes. This was actually the first time I realized Streep is lit to glow in her scenes, compared to Brooks. All of this comes through on this wonderfully clean transfer.

Depth: Even with this use of matte paintings to show off Judgement City, there’s great work in establishing this feature’s dimensionality. This is best exemplified in the trial scenes, where Daniel is made to look smaller in front of the judges, while the “attorneys” stand on opposite sides of the room.

Black Levels: The darker rooms and some details like the black robes worn by the judges show off the deep black levels and no sign of crushing.

Color Reproduction: Aside from the scenes set on Earth, the primary color of this film is white, and the balance to handle this is terrific. The outfits Brooks and the other visitors wear always have the right amount of detail to balance the bright interiors. Other colors pop as well, with the different hotels and restaurants providing plenty to take note of.

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive.

Noise/Artifacts: The film looks nice and clean, with the appropriate amount of grain.



Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Details: The original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the original 35mm LTRT magnetic tracks using Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX.

Dynamics: This film came from a time when comedies still had notable scores, and the Blu-ray does well to make sure the score and dialogue are heard clearly, and well balanced on this remastered track.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: Strong enough separation, but this 2.0 track is only going to spread so far.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.



While not a staggering amount of extras, there’s an hours’ worth of material that provides a lot of insight into the making of the film, developing the story, and more.

Features Include:

  • Albert Brooks and Robert Weide (HD, 28:07) – Recorded over a virtual chat, these interviews, in this pandemic age, have a notable increase in quality, given the circumstances. Regardless, this is a terrific interview that focuses on Brooks’ process for developing the story, what people have taken away from it, casting, the production, and more. Short of a commentary track, Brooks provides fans with many great bits of information they’d want to know about this film.
  • Albert Brooks, Lee Grant, and Rip Torn (SD, 12:23) – This is a fun set of interviews recorded back in 1991 featuring three of the main players discussing the making of the film, and for Grant and Torn – what attracted them to the project. Given how in the moment this recording was, there’s a lot of quality stories to hear.
  • Spending Time in Judgement City (HD, 21:41) – Theologian and critic Donna Bowman discusses the film’s depiction of the afterlife and how well the film functions to provide specific perceptions concerning life. Another good feature that examines the comedy from an interesting perspective to show what sort of depth comes out of a film that could have easily been handled in a more unassuming way.
  • Trailer (HD, 3:15)
  • PLUS – An essay by filmmaker Ari Aster



Defending Your Life is one of my all-time favorite comedies. I would recommend it to anyone as far as having a fairly lighthearted film that still lends itself to ideas and themes that could be taken on a deeper level, if so desired. This Criterion presentation is as great as I would have hoped, complete with a fantastic new video restoration, a strong audio track, and a nice collection of extras to further expand on what’s seen on screen. A classic comedy has received a terrific release.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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