The best film by America’s greatest comic filmmaker arrives on Blu-ray this week in the form of Criterion’s release of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life. Some Brooks partisans might argue on behalf of the more acidic and self-flagellating Modern Romance or the more influential Real Life (and if you caught me on certain days I could probably be convinced that Mother is as great a movie as anyone has ever made), but Defending Your Life is the director’s most philosophically dense, emotionally satisfying, and conceptually ambitious comedy, an inquiry into the meaning of existence as serious as Tree of Life or 2001 but with more laughs per minute than Duck Soup. Brooks stars as Daniel Miller, an advertising executive who has a fatal car crash and learns what really happens when you die: you undergo a trial where both a prosecution and a defense play clips from your life in an effort to determine whether or not you’ve learned enough to move on to the next phase. It’s a delicious premise that perfectly showcases and torments the type of character Brooks always plays, someone who is both extremely self-aware and extremely self-defeating. (The complicated cause and effect relationship that bounces between these two facets of his personality is one of the many consistent delights throughout Brooks’ filmography.)
Miller being an ad exec makes him the fourth Brooks character in a row whose job revolves around manipulating reality, which gets at another key facet of the comedian’s persona: his ideals are constantly running up against the way the world really is and how life is actually experienced, a conflict that gets him into trouble in every film. In Defending Your Life the core issue is fear – Daniel lives in a perpetual state of fear, and it is both what held him back in life and continues to plague him in death – and this is one of Brooks’ many brilliant masterstrokes: by removing religion from the equation and focusing on fear and its crippling effects, he both makes his fable universal and burrows deeper than ever before into the implications of his previous work. In all of his movies Brooks asks enormous questions about what it means to live and love and suffer, but by placing those questions in the afterlife he both amplifies the comic possibilities and invests the potential answers with higher dramatic stakes – all while delivering a fleet-footed romance between Daniel and another recently departed soul (Meryl Streep) that gives the movie the simple pleasures of a great classical rom-com like It Happened One Night or His Girl Friday.
Defending Your Life is also one of Brooks’ most visually inventive films; while he’s always been adroit in this area, joining forces with the great cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T., Bugsy) yields a wealth of witty images as elegant and expressive as they are hilarious. (The fact that the courtroom in which Daniel must defend himself visually and aurally resembles a Hollywood screening room is particularly amusing, especially considering some of the stories Brooks tells about test screenings and studio executives on the Criterion disc’s supplementary interview with Robert Weide.) Revisiting the picture on Blu-ray really brought me back to the excitement of the ’80s and ’90s, when a new Albert Brooks film was as thrilling as a new Stanley Kubrick picture, and nearly as rare – like Kubrick, he tended to take his time, and the care shows in every fully elaborated idea and scrupulously composed frame of Defending Your Life. The Criterion disc is a must-own for Brooks enthusiasts not only for the director-approved hi-def transfer of the movie itself, but for that Weide interview and a superb feature with theologian Donna Bowman in which she gives Defending Your Life the close reading it deserves as an existential masterpiece.
Another famous hyphenate named Brooks gets the deluxe treatment from Kino Lorber with their new editions of Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Spaceballs, both of which have been considerably upgraded from previous home video incarnations. The Producers, Brooks’ outrageous 1968 debut, is available on Blu-ray with several extra features, the best of which is a new audio commentary by filmmaker, film historian, and Mel Brooks fanatic Mike Schlesinger. He delivers a funny and well-informed overview of the history behind The Producers, the now classic farce about a pair of Broadway hustlers (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) who try to game the system by putting on the worst play ever made and bilking their investors – only to wind up in deep trouble when the play is a surprise hit. In terms of craft The Producers is a bit dodgy – Dave Kehr once wrote that it was not only the first picture Mel Brooks directed, but evidently the first one he had ever seen – but the lumpy pacing and the parade of ill-composed sweaty close-ups are irrelevant in the face of the brazen originality of Brooks’ screenplay (for which he won an Oscar, beating out The Battle of Algiers, 2001, and Cassavetes’ Faces!) and the manic energy of the performers. By the time he got around to Spaceballs in 1987, Brooks had grown considerably as a director, partly thanks to the self-imposed demands of mimicking the styles of classic Westerns, Universal monster pictures, and Hitchcock suspense films in movies like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and High Anxiety. Spaceballs, a riff on Star Wars with side trips to Alien, Star Trek, and other sci-fi benchmarks, is both supremely confident and gloriously silly, one of the last great examples of the Mel Brooks brand of parody that he honed to perfection throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Kino has reissued the film in the 4K UHD format and loaded it up with great supplements, from storyboards and a commentary by Brooks to promotional materials and numerous making-of featurettes.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.