The accidental and premature death of Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) on the biggest day of his life lands him in limbo, where he’s compelled to plead his case at a corporate, other-worldly way station. Sound familiar? It’s the premise for Albert Brooks’ fantasy comedy Defending Your Life. In this case, Joe is a middle-aged high school music teacher — a vocation categorized by writer/directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers as somewhat pathetic — who has reconciled with the fact that his dream of becoming a musician of note might never be realized. The same day Joe lands a spot at a prestigious jazz club finds his mother urging her son to set aside his dreams and hang onto the teaching gig. As much as one applauds any film that encourages children to actively explore the arts, the messages being sent here are mixed at best. While in the abyss, Joe is paired with 22 (the voice of Tina Fey), a disenchanted, Boo Berry-colored soul assigned to his case. Pixar’s character animation has come far since the early days of A Bug’s Life, and the film’s feel for New York is at times breathtaking. But it’s difficult to imagine younger viewers being able to tap into the film’s abstract thinking and dependence on math to sell its story. You’d be better off showing your kids the Brooks. Tell them it was directed by Nemo’s dad. (2020) — Scott Marks
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