Meet Joe Black (1998)
Directed by Martin Brest
Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Tambor, Jake Weber.
1998 170 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, mild violence, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 24, 1998.
"Meet Joe Black," directed by Martin Brest (1992's "Scent of a Woman"), is a 170-minute remake of 1934's "Death Takes a Holiday," which ran 78-minutes, and so judging from this, it might seem as if "Meet Joe Black," is an overly robust, needlessly long film, but it didn't seem that way at all. On the contrary, the film is a sleek, good-looking, and entertaining romance.
Set during the last week before his 65th birthday, wealthy media tycoon Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) awakens in his New York mansion to sharp heart pains, and a mysterious, godly voice repeating the word, "yes." The next morning, after he is transported to Manhattan by helicoptor to go to work, with his physician daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani), she stops in at a coffee shop and strikes up a conversation with a handsome, smooth talking man (Brad Pitt). They are smitten with each other, but coming out of the cafe, he is hit and killed by a car, unbenownst to Susan. That night, Bill gets a visitor at his door in the form of the man at the coffee shop. The only difference is that, as he explains, he is Death, who stole Pitt's body and has come to take Bill away after he visits the world in human form for the first time to see how it feels. When Susan sees Pitt, now called Joe Black to hide his identity to everyone else, she realizes something is different about him, but begins to fall in love with him nonetheless. And as Joe follows Bill around and begins to learn things about the world, as well as care for Susan, everything inevitably is leading up to Bill's gala birthday party, which will be his last night before he dies and is lead away by Death.
"Meet Joe Black," reminded me somewhat of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," not because of the story, but because the film is easily divided into two categories: scenes of schmaltzy melodrama, and moments of extraordinary power and honesty. Although the film could have easily been trimmed to two-and-a-half hours, "Meet Joe Black," really did not seem overlong to me. The pacing is slow and deliberate, to be sure, but it was never boring, and felt more true-to-life because of this. In fact, I got a great satisfaction out of watching the scenes unfold. Sure, they were drawn out a little bit, but it's better than watching the constant freneticism of a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie.
Going back to what I was saying before about the film being divided into two categories, "Meet Joe Black," sometimes would attempt to suck out as much sentimentality as possible just to get its audience to cry, and near the conclusion, the music swelled up so much that it began to feel too sappy for my taste.
But then, there were scenes that were so truthful and real that I felt like applauding the filmmakers. Due to its length, at least one thing can be said for the film: all of the six central characters were written superbly into flesh-and-blood people. Each character was given scenes that really caused me to care about them, right down to the supporting ones. The greatest satisfaction I can get while watching a film is getting involved in the scenes and dialogue unto themselves, as if they were all separate short films. If these type of scenes are strung together, however, it can turn into genuine dynamite, and that is what, "Meet Joe Black," did.
Brad Pitt, who usually chooses more unconventional roles (not counting 1989's slasher film, "Cutting Class"), proves here, like he has done in previous films, that he is more than just good-looking. Playing two different characters here, as the guy in the coffee shop, and Joe Black, he was truly endearing and likable. Anthony Hopkins, one of the best actors of this generation, is outstanding, as he has to juggle a character that seemingly has everything, but is forced to deal with his realization that his time on Earth is quickly coming to a close. Claire Forlani, in her first starring role, is a fresh new talent to look for in the future. She always seems to be filled with deep thoughts swarming around in her head, and has a lot of chemistry with Pitt. All of these performances are wonderful, and yet, the one performance that I thought surpassed all of the others was Marcia Gay Harden, who deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Harden is given perhaps the most touching scenes in the film, as Bill's neglected older daughter, Allison. The most heartbreakingly true scene in the whole picture, in my opinion, involves the conversation between Allison and her father, as she tells him that she has always known she wasn't his favorite daughter, but remained happy because she still knew that she was loved by him. Harden flawlessly hits the right mark in every one of her scenes, and this is certainly her best film role since 1993's little-known gem, "Crush," not to be confused with the 1993 Alicia Silverstone thriller, "The Crush."
Judging from the many astonishing moments in the film, "Meet Joe Black," could have easily been one of the very best films of the year, if not for its occasional attempts at extreme mawkishness, and the ending, which felt a little bit far-fetched. Without giving anything away, the film might have left a more lasting, genuine impression if the last three minutes had been completely cut out. It was one of those frequent attempts at a happy ending that simply did not pay off. While not forgetting its faults, "Meet Joe Black" still remains a success, due to its intelligence and unforgettable performances, and is one of the better films of the 1998 Fall season, along with "Living Out Loud," and "Pleasantville." Unlike most big-budget Hollywood ventures, "Meet Joe Black," takes its time, does not hurry its story, and instead of condescending to its characters, refreshingly sees them as flawed, but sincere, three-dimensional people.
©1998 by Dustin Putman