Daniel Miller: Thought what would be? Where am I? Is this Heaven?
Bob Diamond: No, it isn't Heaven.
Daniel Miller: Is it Hell?
Bob Diamond: Nope, it isn't Hell either. Actually, there is no Hell. Although I hear Los Angeles is getting pretty close.
Daniel Miller (Brooks) dies in a car wreck and finds himself in a very Earth-like purgatory called Judgment City. Here, he is given a defense attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), who informs him that he will have to defend Daniel's life by presenting Daniel's past in a trial over whether or not Daniel can Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence or if he should be sent back to face his fears. Daniel then meets Julia (Streep), who led a loving and fulfilling life, but died an untimely death. Julia and Daniel quickly hit it off, but while Daniel asserts he has no more fears and he's ready to move on, his romance with Julia begins raising some doubts...
This film provides examples of:
- Action Survivor: Daniel crashing in his snowmobile, breaking his leg in two places and dragging himself three miles to get help. The question of whether Daniel was conquering a fear of death or just showing a survival instinct is the argument.
- Actually Pretty Funny:
- Daniel manages to make his judges chuckle and smile at his jokes, proving as Julia says that humor has no relation to brain size.
- Bob chuckles when Daniel says he met a woman he likes, essentially saying, "You met Miss Right after you died."
- Afterlife Antechamber: Judgment City, which tries so hard to be like Earth that it has suggestion boxes. If you pass Judgment, Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence. If you fail, you get sent back.
- Afterlife Express: In the form of studio tour buses.
- Alien Lunch: The "food" the big brains eat.
- Alternate Character Interpretation: In-Universe and invoked, as the trial tries to determine whether Daniel's actions were fear motivated. A perfect example is Daniel being thrust to speak in front of a large audience, but never speaks thanks to a timely gas leak evacuation. Lena presents it as an example of Daniel's fear not letting him speak, while Bob states he'd have used the same clip to demonstrate Daniel's courage (despite being pushed on stage by his co-worker.) Lena counters that Daniel never spoke in front of a large group of people again.
- An Aesop: It's okay to be afraid, so long as you don't let it sway you from happiness.
- Angst? What Angst?: Invoked and justified in the film. Julia remarks that even though she should be devastated that she can't see her two children again, she feels alright about it, then says that the people who run Judgment City do that to all the recent dead so they can focus on their trials, rather than dwell on the people they left behind.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The ultimate goal of the people of Judgment City.
- Big Eater: Julia. As she explains, you can eat all you like and never get fat? Time to chow down on everything.
- Bigger Is Better: "I just got through a world filled with penis envy, now one with brain envy!"
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: One interviewee claims to a talk show host she had sex with Benjamin Franklin twice.Host: How was he?
Interviewee: He was fat, Bob.
- The Cameo: Shirley MacLaine.Offscreen woman: OH MY GOD!note
- Celestial Bureaucracy: In order to move on, the deceased must win a trial over whether or not they're worthy to continue. They are given a defense lawyer, face off against prosecutors, and are judged by what look like average court judges. There are two exceptions: children and teenagers. Children automatically go on for being innocent, while teens are too much trouble to keep around and get sent to another place that can handle them.
- Central Theme: The nature of fear. The film examines the subject very closely, and asks some philosophical questions. If you save yourself in a deadly situation, is it bravery or just instinctual survival? Can later actions negate an act of bravery? And so on.
- Cessation of Existence: Briefly mentioned by Bob, who says that anybody who doesn't eventually learn is "thrown away," but there are people who get reincarnated hundreds of times.
- Comfort Food: Because Judgement City is an Afterlife Antechamber, residents can eat as much as they want and never gain weight, and given the trial, they'll need as much of it as they can get.
- Darkest Hour:Bob: ... you're going back.
- Dead to Begin With: Daniel, meet bus. Bus, meet Daniel.
- Deadpan Snarker: Daniel, and occasionally Bob. For example, when Bob's replacement who's supposed to be brilliant says nothing during his trial day. When he finally says three words ("I like that.") after Daniel's rebuttal to Lena, Daniel looks stonily at him and snarks flatly, "I don't believe it. And you didn't want to toot your own horn."Friend: In an 8.5 earthquake, you'll beg for a Jeep.
Daniel: In an 8.5 earthquake, I'll beg for a coffin.
- Died Happily Ever After: Assuming you win the trial, otherwise you start over.
- Dragon Lady: Lena Foster's nickname. Subverted in that she's not Asian.
- Dying Alone: Julia, when she did die: all of her friends went out of town and she stayed back to go swimming. Then she tripped over a lounge chair and into the pool, drowning even when she'd been a good swimmer.note Daniel: You died... pissed?
Julia: I'm still pissed. I was a good swimmer.
- Eaten Alive: Daniel discovers one of his past lives was an African being chased by an unseen growling big cat.Daniel: Who are you?
Julia: I'm Prince Valiant! Who are you?
- Ending Type: Earn Your Happy Ending as well as a Surprisingly Happy Ending.
- Face Your Fears:
- Fantastic Racism: Typical humans use less than seven percent of their brain. The term "little brain" is bandied about in the same deprecating way that racial slurs are used in our world right down to the stand-up comic making "little brain" jokes and then complaining that the audience isn't bright enough to understand them because they're "little brains".
- Food Porn: Since they're the absolute zenith of food, the dishes that are shown are mouthwatering.
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: Everything about Judgment City is designed to be familiar to the residents of the West Coast, including the city itself, which is Century City in real life.
- Handwave/A Wizard Did It: In-universe, whenever Daniel is amazed at the Residents knowing things they shouldn't, they essentially say "Big brains, remember?"
- Have You Seen My God?: Despite living in the Afterlife, no one there knows if God exists or not.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: When a sushi chef hears that Daniel is looking at nine days of his life for his not-a-trial, he exclaims "Oh my God!" and tells Daniel he's going to need more sake.
- Informed Ability: When Bob is temporarily indisposed, Daniel is given a stand-in who's supposedly very competent. He's nothing of the sort; he repeatedly passes up his chances to argue in Daniel's favor, which angers the latter to the point he has to protest against his own counsel and argue the points himself. Which may have been the plan all along.
- Innocent Bigot: While by no means a racist, college age Daniel scoffs at the idea of the Japanese making a timepiece. He says if it were the Germans making one, he'd invest (presumably due to their proximity to the Swiss.)
- Insistent Terminology/Immediate Self-Contradiction: All the staff of Judgment City insist repeatedly that the proceedings for each deceased are not a "trial." What exactly the proceedings are, that involve a courtroom, judges, prosecution, defense counsel, opening statements, cross-examination, and closing statements, but are not a trial, is never revealed.Daniel: Oh my God! So I'm on trial for being afraid!Mr. Diamond: First, we don't like to call it a trial. Second, yes.
- It Will Never Catch On: One of the flashbacks shown during Daniel's hearing shows him being offered a chance to invest money in Casio when the company was getting ready to go public and the stock was dirt cheap. Daniel laughed at the thought of the Japanese making wristwatches.
- Judgement of the Dead: The whole premise of the movie. Daniel is being judged for his deeds in life to determine his destination.
- Literal Metaphor: Since Your Mind Makes It Real, it seems your emotional states can literally manifest. When Dan demands Bob explain why he seemingly abandoned him mid-trial, he tells him, "I was trapped in the inner circle of fault." Dan is unsurprisingly confused, but one may surmise Bob was literally immobilized by an emotional breakdown made real.
- Money Is Not Power: Constantly played with. Bob asks if Daniel donated to charities. He's questioned for not demanding a better salary from his interviewer, and missed out on a once-in-several-lifetimes offer of Casio stock. An exasperated Daniel finally blows up, "Here we go again with money. Obviously, this is all about money. Look, Im guilty. I didnt make enough money, okay? Call me a hippie. Send me to hell. I give up!"
- Mundane Afterlife: Judgement City is purposefully designed to resemble a nice urban California community so those arriving from the western half of the United States can feel as comfortable as possible in surroundings that are "pleasing and very familiar."Helen: Looks familiar, doesn't it?
Daniel: I was just thinking that.
Helen: Well that's how it was designed, so it can be as stress-free for you folks as possible. By the way if there's anything we can do to make it more like Earth we have suggestion boxes on almost every corner; we'd like to hear from you.
Daniel: You know if you really want to make this whole place seem more like Earth you should start building some of those mini malls.
Helen: You know it's funny you should say that; six of them just opened up outside of town. I hear they're lovely. Personally I don't think I would use them because I don't like yogurt and I love doing my own nails.
- Nausea Fuel: Resident food makes little-brains throw up. Daniel: This is what smart people eat?!
- Nice Guy: Daniel. He even allows a senile old woman to talk his ear off about her pet, even though she asks him the same questions at least three times.
- 90% of Your Brain: Daniel's defense attorney Bob says he uses 48% of his, while Daniel can only use 3%. The higher-ups nickname the deceased "little brains." Daniel is actually embarrassed about it ("My God, I'm the dunce of the Universe!"), but Bob assures him it's normal for those that haven't moved on to be at such a level.
- No Name Given: Julia's last name. Lampshaded in the climax.Daniel: I tried to call you, but I didn't know your last name.
- Noodle Incident: Bob and Lena really don't like each other, even given the ending. Bob perks up when he learns Lena "lost last Thursday".
- Not So Above It All: Despite having Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence, the Residents can be awfully petty and annoyed. Bob mutters at one employee that it's nice that he finally showed up for work, and almost giggles when he finds out Lena lost her last case. Daniel is worried when he finds out the two have been feuding.
- One Steve Limit: An aversion that's actually a plot point when Daniel realizes he never found out Julia's last name.
- Only One Afterlife: Judgement City and the next stage seem to be the only afterlife and where all people, regardless of their beliefs, go upon death and there's no mention of any religion having influence on any aspect of either.
- Parody Sue: Julia is so perfect, her "trial" consists of highlights from her life that her prosecutor enjoys watching. It actually becomes a Plot Point because it's obvious she is moving on, and Daniel may never see her again. Julia denies she's perfect, though.
- Punch-Clock Villain/Designated Villain/Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Lena. It's implied that part of her role is to antagonize Daniel as seen in Xanatos Gambit below. Remember, both "lawyers" work for the Universe. While she and Bob seem to genuinely hate each other, even she beams a smile when Daniel declares his true love for Julia.
- The Quiet One: Dick Stanley, Daniel's second defender, barely speaks up for him so Daniel can defend himself. Sam notes him as "quiet but excellent."
- Race for Your Love: In the film's climax, Daniel and Julia are put on buses: Daniel's bus is going to back to Earth while Julia's is going to the next phase of existence. When Julia calls out for Daniel, he finally faces his fear, escapes the bus, and catches up to her while the bus is in motion, only to find the door is locked. The judges find it so moving they let him on with her.
- Reincarnation: If you are flawed or still contain fears from your previous lives, you are sent right back into a another body to do it again until you overcome fear.
- The Rival: Lena for Bob.Daniel: (aghast) Are you two feuding?!
Bob: We're not feuding. That would indicate at one time we liked each other. We never liked each other.
- Safe Driving Aesop: Daniel takes his eyes off the road, reaching for CDs that slid down off the passenger seat when he turned a corner. Weaving into oncoming traffic, he narrowly misses a station wagon and only pokes his head up when he hears a bus horn, just in time to see his impending doom barreling towards him. As he admitted later, it's pretty embarrassing to die through your own vehicular stupidity.
- Secret Test of Character: All those days Daniel was going through? They were intentionally to put pressure on him to see if he would crack. He nearly did, even admitting outright he was afraid to be in a relationship with Julia because he felt he wouldn't be moving on with her. The actual days had almost no bearing on Daniel's judgment. Instead, proving he would risk everything to be with Julia proved he'd conquered his fears.
- So Unfunny, It's Funny: The standup comedian.Comedian: Hi, how did you die?Daniel: On stage, like you!
- Star-Crossed Lovers: The kindhearted, loving Julia (who will most likely be moved on) and the fearful, neurotic Daniel (who will most likely go back to Earth).
- Stiff Upper Lip/Stepford Smiler: Daniel seems to be angst-ridden but taking it all in stride.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: "Around the corner, something big is coming! Come to me!" (cue Daniel screaming as the big thing around the corner comes to him)
- Teens Are Monsters: They are sent to a different area for judgment.Daniel: What about teenagers?Bob: Too much trouble. They go elsewhere. We tried for a while, but they damage the tupas. Too rowdy.
- They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: Daniel only gets a few bites of his cheese omelette because he has to go to his appointment with Bob Diamond.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Julia, who died by tripping into her pool.
- Undignified Death: Julia's death: she tripped into her pool.Daniel: What did the East German judge give you?
- Unreliable Narrator: Nothing Bob or Lena say can be truly trusted. They all work for the Universe, and while Bob and Lena don't like each other, it's implied he and Lena collaborated to make Daniel frustrated and nervous about his fate as a Secret Test of Character. Lena is genuinely happy to see Daniel move on at the climax.
- Up to Eleven: Casio watches apparently are the most prolific timepieces in the Universe... and the afterlife, too.Male Judge: (holding up his arm to show his watch) I know who they are.
- Xanatos Gambit: It's strongly hinted that the review itself was a test for Daniel, to try to humiliate him and see if he still had the courage after all their abuse to still bravely declare his love for Julia, even though they weren't going to be going to the same place.
This theory is supported by the number of days Daniel is scheduled to review - nine - which is pointed out numerous times throughout the movie. If you don't count direct rebuttal scenes, the trial looks at eight days from Daniel's life on Earth (The schoolyard bully, the classmate losing his paint supplies, the Casio stock tip, the salary negotiation, the public speaking engagement, the snowmobile, Lena's "bad decision" montage and the ticket to Hong Kong.) Day 9 is the unexpected review of his final conversation in the hotel with Julia. The climactic tram scene is Daniel's unintentional "rebuttal" to Day 9, which is observed by the re-assembled participants of the trial.
- Your Mind Makes It Real: It's implied that the food in Judgment City is whatever the eater believes it to be.