Filmmaker Albert Brooks must have read William James before making his ingenious film Defending Your Life. The American philosopher once observed: "Most people live, whether physically, intellectually, or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul's resources." That is certainly true of the protagonist of this story.
On his 40th birthday, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks), a divorced ad executive who lives in Los Angeles, dies in a head-on collision with a bus while driving his brand new BMW. He wakes up in an otherworldly place called Judgment City where the weather is perfectly clear all the time and where you can eat all you want without gaining an ounce. He is told that he must appear before a tribunal that will determine whether or not he goes on to a higher adventure in the universe or returns to earth again.
Daniel's witty defender in this court, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), informs him that most earthians only use two to three percent of their mental powers and are jokingly referred to in Judgment City as "little brains." Indeed, the smallness of Daniel's soul is evident in replays of episodes from his life on earth when a tough-as-nails prosecutor (Lee Grant) reveals him to have been stunted by fear and constant anxiety. Daniel finds some surcease from this trial in visits with Julia (Meryl Streep), a radiant woman who laughs at his jokes and seems destined for a brave new world. Will he find the courage to love her and be all he was meant to be? Or has fear still got him by the throat?
Witty writing and fine performances by the ensemble cast make Defending Your Life into a total delight. The moral of this afterlife comedy is nicely summed up by Bertrand Russell's comment: "To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."