For someone who dropped out of Hebrew school post–bat mitzvah and can recite all of Grey’s Anatomy by heart but not a single prayer, I’m not the first person you’d expect to adore pieces of pop culture revolving around the afterlife. But as morose as the genre can be, it’s always had a weird draw over me. To clarify, I’m not talking about low-hanging fruit like the lazy, self-pitying Ricky Gervais Netflix series (is anyone, ever?); give me the highbrow takes on death, the acute, profound movies and shows that stick with you long after they end like Ghost, Russian Doll, The Leftovers, The Good Place, and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning “San Junipero” episode. Hell, I’ll even take that final King’s Cross scene from the last Harry Potter. As long as you have something to say about the afterlife that hasn’t been said, well, to death, my ears are wide open.
I’m far from the only one who feels that way; setting your stories in the afterlife has become more popular than ever in the past decade, with shows like Miracle Workers and American Gods recently joining the hallowed canon. The uptick is understandable — the afterlife allows writers a fully blank canvas on which they can paint in strokes like biting comedy, painfully true-to-reality drama, or, in the case of one of my all-time favorite afterlife movies, 1998’s criminally underrated What Dreams May Come, exquisite visual effects (the scene of Robin Williams frolicking in the field of watercolor flowers? My phone background for a year minimum). And in 1991’s Defending Your Life — which is, for my money, the very best film about the afterlife ever made — you get a little bit of all that and more, with the added bonuses of a pitch-perfect Meryl Streep and a cameo by Shirley MacLaine that hilariously (but not brusquely) sends up her widely known belief in reincarnation.
Although the Albert Brooks-directed and -written fantasy came out 30 years ago, I can still remember how fresh and urgent it felt the first time I saw it. It was sometime in the mid-’00s, and my dad, a fan of both dark comedy and movies made by Jews, had chosen it as the latest installment in our weekly, ongoing “movies Rachel needs to see while she’s still living at home so I can’t say I didn’t try” series. Not every pick so far had been successful (Jaws? Great. Monty Python? Not for me, thank you very much!), but he promised me he had faith that this one would stick. He was dead-on: With Defending Your Life, I was hooked from the jump thanks to a clever premise that felt unlike anything I’d seen before. A movie in which the dead are judged in an actual courtroom, forced to watch as a team of lawyers scrolls through thousands of days’ worth of footage from their lives to dissect their triumphs and mistakes on an Imax-sized screen? And when the defendants weren’t living every introvert’s worst nightmare, they got to partake in consequence-free romance and an unlimited selection of open, calorie-free buffets? I was in.
The characters in Defending Your Life are technically in purgatory. They’re sent to Judgment City after they die to await a ruling on where they’ll go next, whether it’s a higher stage of existence or back to Earth for another go-around (cue the aforementioned delightful MacLaine cameo). When he arrives in town, Brooks’s Daniel Miller is a 39-year-old ad exec who’s just been killed driving a car he’d bought only hours before; Streep’s similarly deceased Julia is a kindhearted supermom who takes to the afterlife as easily as if it were a new yoga routine. They fall for each other quickly, exploring all that Judgment City has to offer (did I mention those buffets?), but soon realize that they’re likely on different paths — in both life and death, Daniel is full of fears and insecurities that prevent him from living up to his full potential, while Julia is the kind of unfailingly generous, brave person who saves her family from a fire and then goes back for the dog. Their time together is limited, unless Daniel can prove to the judges that he’s not the anxiety-riddled scaredy-cat he so clearly seems to be.
Thirty years after its release, I rewatch Defending Your Life whenever I’m craving a film that satisfies my innate need for seeing two attractive and witty middle-aged adults fall in love despite a myriad of high-stakes but low-stress challenges (see: Enough Said, The Big Sick, basically everything ever made by Nancy Meyers). But the movie’s supernatural setting adds another layer, one that gets more deeply at the part of me that read the “Miracles Happen” section of every Chicken Soup for the Soul book as a kid and thought, “Okay, I don’t believe in life after death … but what if?” To me, 30 years later, Defending Your Life’s version of the afterlife just feels right. As great as The Good Place or What Dreams May Come are, their depictions of the afterlife are disturbingly dichotomic; sure, The Good Place has a “Medium Place” for people who aren’t totally virtuous or evil, but that setting was intended more as a punishment for its sole inhabitant than anything else (your favorite beers, but always warm? Oof). And while Russian Doll may be brilliant television (bring on the Annie Murphy–starring second season!), I have no desire to repeat any day of my life over and over again, thank you very much.
Defending Your Life excels in its refusal to make the divide between good and evil a clean-cut one, avoiding punishing its characters for simply being human. What it instead presents is a scenario that feels both “realistic” (in quotation marks because it’s realistic inasmuch as my atheist self is concerned) and comforting in its common-sense approach. Like most afterlife-set movies and shows, the film firmly believes that your actions on Earth matter, but what differentiates it from most of the others is that it’s not just referring to the big, “saving a baby from a fire” situations. It’s talking about the smaller stuff, too, predating the way hits like The Good Place handled the micro moments: the time you saw a classmate cheating on a test and decided to say nothing; the meetings where you could’ve asked for a raise but chickened out; the arguments you knew you wouldn’t win but kept at anyway, just to make someone hurt. All those millions of tiny moments that make up your character, for better and for worse. And if those moments average out to something commendable, that’s great! But if they don’t? Defending Your Life doesn’t leave you condemned to suffer for all eternity, setting it apart from most of its fellow afterlife chasers. Instead, in Brooks’s world, you’re given a compassionate pat on the back and permission to give it another try alongside millions of others in the same boat.
The film doesn’t argue that we humans need to be flawless in order to succeed; what counts at the end is that we’ve strived to be the best versions of ourselves, even when it’s felt impossible. Streep’s Julia is undoubtedly the better person in the eyes of Judgment City’s standards, but it’s not her goodness that allows her to move on to the next phase. It’s her bravery — her consistent ability to push past both the world’s challenges and her own weaknesses to become just a little bit kinder, a little bit more confident. It’s through meeting her that Brooks’s Daniel (light spoilers ahead!) decides to eventually defy his own nagging doubts (“What if my plan won’t work? What if she doesn’t want me? What if I can’t measure up to all the other, better, smarter, funnier people in my life?”) and showcase the courage that’d been lacking from his life on Earth.
In the 30 years since Defending Your Life was released, its influence has echoed in everything from The Lovely Bones, with its in-between waiting period for the dead, to This Is the End, which gives its characters a chance to prove their worth before beaming them up to heaven or violently killing them off. Yet as smart and nuanced as these works are (even, and especially, the excellent and oft-overlooked This Is the End), none of them have presented a vision of the afterlife as compellingly believable as Brooks’s film, or as kind. Defending Your Life understands the fallibility of humankind and judges, but ultimately doesn’t fault, us for it. Even after nearly four decades’ worth of mistakes and missed opportunities in which fear was the driving force, Daniel still gets a chance to make things right, and the judges take note. It’s never too late to change, the movie says, even if it takes a lifetime and then some.
This year more than ever, I think we could all use a reminder that no matter how hard it gets, things are gonna be okay, okay? It’s been a hell of a time, and even a fictional promise of a future in which it’s perseverance, not perfection, that matters most provides some badly needed reassurance. So on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET, join me in rewatching Defending Your Life. I’ll be on Vulture’s Twitter account (@vulture) to tweet through the experience, and in the spirit of the movie’s afterlife attire, I’ll be wearing my comfiest bathrobe for the occasion. (Which, let’s be real, is no different than my outfit every other day of my life in the past year — but hey, no judgment. Save it for the movie!)