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by: Scott Renshaw

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 flabby plotting.

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 peanut butter.

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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