Here’s a little gem from the early 90s that I hadn’t heard of until recently. It’s an unchallenging bit of wit centered around Albert Brooks’ humor using a view of the afterlife that functions around the idea of reincarnation. There’s something about overcoming fear to become a better person which feels surprisingly thin, but it’s the sort of thin that is a nice veneer to a little story of the afterlife.
Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) is an ad executive who, on the first day he gets his small BMW, rams it head-on into a bus and dies instantly. Disorientated, he wakes up to find himself in a line to get on a tram towards Judgment City. Dressed all in white, he’s led to the Continental Hotel where he will stay a few days while a defender and prosecutor argue in front of a pair of judges whether Miller has learned enough in his life, the latest in a succession of lives, to “move on” or whether he’ll have to go back to Earth to try again in a new life from scratch. While there he meets Julia, another early death who seems destined to move on and with whom Miller falls head over heels for.
This is all largely a setup for Brooks to be funny to other people, and I suppose your enjoyment of the film depends on your enjoyment of Brooks’ humor. Me? I find him amusing, so when he and Julia go to Judgment City’s comedy club, the Dying Onstage, and he heckles the poor comic with the bad audience, I feel like it deserves a little chuckle. When he makes gentle fun of Julia’s form of death, when she fell down some stairs, hit her head, and drowned by saying the Olympic Committee demands more from such displays, I chuckle again.
Not all of the comedy is rooted in what essentially amounts to Brooks doing standup for the audience of whomever he’s talking to. A good bit of it is character based, and it works at the same level as everything else. The central idea of Miller’s journey is that he’s afraid and that’s what’s keeping him from moving on. There’s a building in Judgment City that allows the temporary denizens to view selections from their past lives. Julia and Miller go together, and while Julia sees Prince Valiant, Miller sees an African tribesman running from a lion, implying that Julia’s been on the path upwards for centuries but Miller’s been the same scared little man for the same amount of time. It’s amusing, lightly so, but amusing still.
From a character based point of view, the idea of a person overcoming their fear makes sense. From this afterlife point of view, it seems vanishingly small, though. I don’t think the movie ever convinces me that Miller’s cowardice is what is preventing his brain from expanding into greater usage, what essentially amounts to the status symbol of those working in Judgment City. I can see it outside of the film’s own presentation, but the movie treats everything so lightly that the connection between Miller’s two major problems, his fear and his inability to move on over the course of a thousand lifetimes, never feels really established.
The movie ends with Julia and Miller going in different directions, with Julia moving on after having even her prosecutor in tears for her incredibly selfless and brave life and Miller being consigned back to Earth to try again. Miller takes this moment to overcome his fear and jump from one tram to another which his judges see and take as him finally advancing enough to move on. It’s an unchallenging little ending with enough pathos that it works. It’s nice.
Now, Julia. Julia is a bit of a problem. As an ideal for Miller to strive towards, a final thing for him to try to achieve, she’s fine. She works in that regard. However, she doesn’t really seem to work as a character. In the logic of the world, she should have moved on many lives ago. In terms of herself as a recently dead person, she only makes scant mention of the family, including small children, that she’s leaving behind. As a woman who, until very recently, was happily married, she’s shockingly willing to jump into bed with Miller even if it’s the afterlife and probably decades before there’s any hope of seeing her husband again. She works as a function of Miller’s story, but she doesn’t feel complete on her own.
One final note. The movie has fun with expectations on behavior in life that the afterlife would want to see. Miller gets chastised for not being aggressive enough in business, for his inability to speak in public, and even for giving a school era friend a second chance by giving him his paint supplies which the teacher then yells at the young Miller for losing. I think it’s primarily a source of comedy, upending expectations about the afterlife, but Brooks, as writer and director, makes it central to Miller’s journey, providing the movie the thin backbone it needs to get us through the journey with him.
The cast is fine. Brooks breezes through his own project on his wit. Meryl Streep is pretty and charming as Julia. Rip Torn is big and endearing as Bob, Miller’s defender. Much like most of the movie, the performances are fine. They’re nice. They do their job and little more.
It’s an amusing little trifle of a film that tries to have something on its mind but is never terribly interested in it. It’s witty and amusing while it lasts, leaving little impression other than the chuckles had along the way.