The Netflix Files: March 23, 2011

The Netflix Files works to find the hidden gems of Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature, the films and TV series that have gone largely unnoticed by the streaming community.

Exactly twenty years ago yesterday, a film called Defending Your Life was released in theaters. A romantic comedy set in purgatory, the film was well-received in 1991 (with a 96% fresh on RottenTomatoes), and generally regarded as a creative contemplation on the meaning of life. Despite its critical acclaim and the presence of Meryl Streep, Defending Your Life has been largely forgotten over time. It’s arguably one of the smartest comedies ever made, and it is currently available on Watch Instantly — but only for the next two days.

The director, writer and star is a man named Albert Brooks. Brooks was a household name in the ’80s, but the Jewish comedian has largely disappeared from the public eye. A contemporary of Woody Allen and Larry David, he was known for spouting his neuroses on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and early incarnations of Saturday Night Live. Defending Your Life was the follow-up to his role in Broadcast News, the 1987 mass media comedy that earned him an Oscar nomination. He went on to voice numerous guest characters on The Simpsons (including bowling instructor Jacques and criminal mastermind Hank Scorpio). Audiences today know him best as the voice of Marlin, the clownfish protagonist of Finding Nemo.  

Defending Your Life may just be his masterpiece. Brooks plays Daniel Miller, an across-the-board-average guy who dies prematurely in a car crash and finds himself in Judgment City. This reimagining of purgatory makes for an immensely clever setting — the recently deceased are offered certain amenities as they “pass through.” In one hilarious scene, for instance, Daniel is allowed to visit the Past Lives Pavillon, where he views the past incarnations of his soul (seriously, check out the hyperlink).

Judgment City exists to place its temporary residents on trial and to decide whether or not they’ve lived a fulfilling life on Earth. If they win the trial, they move on to bigger and better things in the universe. If they lose, they are sent back to Earth to try again in a different body, their memories washed. During the trial, a defendant watches key moments from his life on a big screen, and then must make a case for his actions — and, ultimately, his life. His condescending lawyer is played by Rip Torn.

Daniel is not a remarkable man. He is not special. His life has not been what the judges would deem “fulfilling.” Yet during his time in Judgment City, he meets and falls in love with Julia (Streep, in a rare supporting comedic role). Only after his death is he finally able to take chances and live his life as it should have been lived.

Overall it’s a fantastic movie, with one of the most epic, endearing climax scenes ever seen in a comedy. Check it out while you still can if you need a study break before Friday; you won’t regret it.

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