MEET JOE BLACK
Death (Brad Pitt), in the nattily-attired, bleach-blond human form of
Joe Black, is ready for a holiday. Having spent eternity in the isolation
of his never-ending task, the Reaper has decided he wants to sample mortal
pleasures, with aging communications tycoon Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins)
as his somewhat reluctant guide. You may feel that Death has made up for
plenty of lost time by the time MEET JOE BLACK finally winds its way to a
conclusion -- not because his love of Parrish's daughter Susan (Claire
Forlani) is so transforming, but because the three hours of the film begin
to feel something like eternity. In his attempt to make an epic of the
human experience, director Martin Brest has overburdened a simple story
with an entire film's worth of pregnant pauses, portentous glances and
The real shame is that there's two hours of solid material trying to
escape from this lengthy remake of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. The
relationship between Susan and Joe is given a neat twist at the start as
the emotionally confused Susan meets and falls for the guy whose body
Death takes (in one of the most startling screen deaths you'll see).
Hopkins, meanwhile, does nice work as the businessman taking stock of his
legacy, drawing on the understated physical acting which has always marked
his best performances. Brest finds both comedy and creepiness in the
early stages of Joe and Parrish's interaction, with the mogul's mysterious
new confidante inspiring curiosity among his family and business
associates, as well as confusion over the gentleman's unusual affinity for
Between every shred of interesting material, however, there are
several patience-threatening minutes. It's astonishing to note that two
editors are credited on MEET JOE BLACK, since virtually nothing seems to
have been left on the cutting room floor. The scene in which Forlani and
Pitt make their lingering departure from one another at the coffee shop
could qualify as a short subject; it takes so long for them to undress one
another when they finally make love you suspect they're sizing each other
for wardrobe. Superfluous sub-plots drag the film down, including one
which requires Pitt to adopt an embarrassing West Indian accent. Even the
entire storyline involving an attempted coup by Parrish's top lieutenant
(Jake Weber, oozing yuppie sleaze) seems to exist for the sole purpose of
one big punch line at the 160 minute mark.
That consistent lack of narrative economy ultimately dooms MEET JOE
BLACK in spite of its strengths. Pitt brings a surprising undercurrent of
menace to the role of Joe Black, while still finding the humanity Death
discovers. There are also some supporting moments which do work quite
well, including Marcia Gay Harden as Parrish's oldest daughter making a
heartbreaking admission of love for her father. MEET JOE BLACK is a truly
gorgeous film, with Emmanuel Lubezki providing luminous photography of
Dante Ferretti's production design. It's also a case of ever-diminishing
returns, with so many emotional confrontations and false endings you may
forget whom you were supposed to care about.
1998 has already seen one film about an immortal who risks life on
earth for love, the Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan vehicle CITY OF ANGELS. That
film was smart enough to treat the story as grand melodrama -- a weepy
transcendental tragedy rather than an Oscar-season Message Movie. MEET
JOE BLACK sprinkles its moments of insight so intermittently throughout
its three hours that they start to get lost. Life on earth certainly
could have seemed more vibrant, and less like an endurance test.
On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 lingering Deaths: 5.
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