• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #120: Daniel Miller


Take the opportunities when they come. Anything else is indefensible.

I've always been a big fan of the 1991 Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life. It's a sardonic, witty, even bittersweet take on what comes next. There have been other fictional representations depicting the afterlife as a bureaucracy (including an unpublished novel of my own, inspired in part by this film), but the fresh approach here is the legal context, the requirement that new arrivals must prove themselves worthy of moving on to the next plane of existence by virtue of the life they just led. The prospect of a prosecutor damning one's soul to recycling based on a few handpicked days is terrifying to me, just as it is to Albert Brooks' Daniel Miller.

And Daniel's not evil (nor, I think, am I), just goofy, a bit misguided, completely human in his flaws. He's fine, he's decent, he's just not quite good enough. Probably sounds familiar to many of us. As fate would have it, his shortcomings are shown in sharp relief to the near-perfection of his fellow decedent, Julia, played by Meryl Streep at her most relaxed and charming. Julia's courage, her kindness, her generosity, make her a shoo-in for advancement. Of course, they also make Daniel fall in love with her. These two souls are literally ships passing in the night, connecting for a fleeting instant, and their impending departure to separate destinations gives the film its dramatic tension, romantic flavor, and satisfying climax.

I connect with Daniel's struggle to overcome his weaknesses, and the weary, sarcastic humor that is both shield and sword as he navigates life (and death). He's a wonderfully well-drawn and human character, and his scenes with Streep's Julia and Rip Torn's brilliant defense attorney Bob Diamond are nuanced and crisp. If you've never seen it, I recommend it highly. It will make you laugh, smile, and it might even make you think. If it came to it, is the life you're living the one you want to defend later? On second thought, let's not think about that too much...

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