ALBERT BROOKS is unique in American filmmaking. In movies from ``Real Life'' and ``Modern Romance'' to the superb ``Lost in America,'' he chronicles his wry reactions to contemporary life, caring more about sardonic social criticism than slick ``entertainment value.'' The result is a small but impressive body of work that shows what can be accomplished by a maverick with a small budget and a nonstop sense of humor. Mr. Brooks's latest comedy, ``Defending Your Life,'' has another of the near-generic titles that he puts on all his movies, indicating that he's again examining a broad subject that goes beyond the experiences of his characters. Subjects don't get much broader than this one: What happens to people after they die?
We learn his answer by watching the adventures of a typical Albert Brooks hero. His name is Daniel Miller, and like the protagonist of ``Lost in America,'' he's a yuppie who thinks more about his new automobile than the state of the world or his own soul. He's killed in that car before the opening credits, and finds an unexpected afterlife that's as middle-class as he is, where people live in bland hotels and pass time in nightclubs with bad comedians. More important, they prepare to defend the things t hey did during their lives, in trials that determine whether a person goes to heaven or back to earth for another incarnation.
An interesting twist in Brooks's conception is that the afterlife ``trial'' doesn't revolve around ordinary ideas of virtuous living - charity donations and that sort of thing - but rather the importance of overcoming fears and the limitations they bring. If he's to move on from earthly life, Daniel must prove that he related in a positive way to the world and his neighbors.
What makes this a perfect vehicle for Brooks's biting satire is that Daniel's trial reflects the priorities and preoccupations that governed his life. Daniel tries to score a point, for instance, by showing how he purchased an expensive airline ticket even though he'd lost his job. The incident proves little about him except how steeped he was in materialistic values; yet he's sure this is a ringing example of fearless, life-embracing behavior!
DANIEL'S sojourn in Judgment City is complicated by his relationship with Julia, an attractive woman whose own trial is a lot more likely to have a successful outcome. Warmly played by Meryl Streep, she's the kind of friend who would have greatly enriched his life if he'd met her when he was alive, and she turns out to have a deciding role in the outcome of his trial. Other characters include Daniel's hilariously upbeat attorney, played by Rip Torn; a substitute lawyer who's too dignified and profession al to do much of anything, played by Buck Henry; and various other denizens of the afterworld, including a movie star whose unannounced appearance provides the picture's most amusing joke.
``Defending Your Life'' is looser and slower than Brooks's best work; a little trimming and tightening would have made it even more enjoyable. But there's no more inventive comic filmmaker on the current scene, and no writer/director/star who's more determined to flesh out a satirical vision unlike anything American cinema has given us in the past. ``Defending Your Life'' is one of a kind, and so is the filmmaker who created it.