movie review by
Gary Johnson

Meet Joe Black

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The average length of a Hollywood movie has recently pushed past the two hour mark. Back in the '30s and '40s, movies averaged about 90 minutes in length. However, now we live in the age of the blockbuster. Nearly every Hollywood movie is designed to be the next box-office champion. And unfortunately many filmmakers interpret running time as being synonymous with importance (with visions of Oscars dancing in their heads). With this rationale, a 150 minute movie must certainly be more important than a 100 minute movie.

The latest movie to brave mega-length proportions is a romantic comedy called Meet Joe Black--which clocks in at three hours. (Yes, three hours! That's not a misprint.) The material itself is rather light fluffy stuff (notwithstanding the appearance of "Death" himself as a lead character). At one time--when directors such as Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, and Preston Sturges were the comedy kings in Hollywood--this material wouldn't have justified more than 90-100 minutes. But now, even a romantic comedy can venture into the same running-time territory as mega-sized productions such as JFK and The English Patient.

Meet Joe Black was inspired by a character from a 1920s stage play that was adapted for the screen in 1934 as Death Takes a Holiday. Significantly, Meet Joe Black is over twice as long as the original movie (which clocks in at 78 minutes). To be fair, Meet Joe Black is much more than a remake: it's an elaboration upon the original story. It adds a new main plot to the mix (the movie has two main plots), as well as at least a couple additional sub-plots.

Brad Pitt stars as Death. He decides to take a little break from his usual duties and live life through the eyes of a human: "Sometimes I speculate that I haven't left time for anything else," he says. So on the day that he comes to take away a wealthy publisher, William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), Death makes Bill an offer: if Bill will serve as Death's guide in the material world, Death will allow Bill to live. "I want to look around before I take you," he says. Of course, if Death gets bored at any time, the deal's over. The movie isn't nearly as dark as this synopsis might suggest, for the filmmakers aren't concerned with the subject's dark side (notwithstanding an horrific turn in one of the movie's opening scenes). Instead, the filmmakers have fashioned a movie that becomes life affirming.

As depicted in Meet Joe Black, Death isn't a scythe wielding phantom. In fact, the morbidity of his occupation has had little effect upon him. (The movie completely sidesteps this issue.) However, while his job takes him around the world, he knows precious little about people. By going incognito, Death hopes to get a taste of life on earth. And what a taste he gets! Soon after he appears, Bill introduces Death--calling him Joe Black (and thus the movie's title)--to his family. Bill's daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani) isn't immediately smitten by Death/Brad Pitt, but it isn't long before she's longing for his lips.

If it isn't clear from this plot description, the movie offers very little to justify its length. By placing the movie within the home and office of a wealthy publisher, the filmmakers devise numerous opportunities to wow us with magnificent furnishings, architecture, and clothing. The incredible sets and wardrobes are designed to bowl us over, but they can't disguise the fact that at its core Meet Joe Black is a relatively simple fantasy story.

The movie's most compelling component is the confrontation between Bill Parrish and his company's board of directors. The board is now threatening to wrestle the company away from Bill and allow for a merger with a corporate raider. This is a company he built from the ground up and it reflects his life work. He definitely doesn't want for it to be destroyed. In part, this confrontation becomes engaging because of the outstanding supporting performance by Jake Weber. As Bill's future son-in-law, Drew (Weber) spearheads the attempt to overtake Parrish Publishing. Bill's impending death fills this conflict with urgency. Whereas in most circumstances the business/publishing plot would sound a bit mundane, the presence of Death--who seldom ventures far away from Bill--constantly reminds us that Bill is working on borrowed time.

Many actors in Weber's shoes would have been chewing the scenery; however, Weber underplays the character. We sense the impatience and impertinence that Drew keeps masked behind his gracious manners, but Weber resists the temptation to push the character to comic book excess (think of Gary Oldman in about any role)--and that means his character remains all the more human, and all the more credible. Jake Weber is so good he nearly steals this movie away from Hopkins and Pitt, and that's no small task.

While Hopkins and Weber vie for control of the company, Bill's daughter begins to fall in love with Joe Black. She describes him as "different in the most seductive way." However, instead of seeing him for what he is, she projects onto him her own yearnings. She confesses, "I don't really know who you are." But she is entranced nonetheless. In part, she's looking for the ideal relationship, as prompted by her father. He urges her to "be deliriously happy fall head over heels: To make the journey and not to fall in love--is to have not lived at all." He says her relationship with Drew has "all the passion of a pair of tit mice."

Claire Forlani fares well in the early scenes. When Susan meets a young salesman in a diner and they strike up a conversation, her mannerisms become filled with nervous tics. At this point, her fidgety, apprehensive attitude seems genuine. But as the movie unfolds, we find out that this is all Forlani has to offer the character. She's like a frightened deer. Eventually, her skittish movements lose their conviction through sheer repetition. And, in the process, her attraction to Joe Black loses credibility. Their romance pales in comparison to Bill Parrish's confrontations with Drew.

Much of the problem is the Joe Black character. He's like a mixture of Peter Sellers in Being There and Jeff Bridges in Starman, with a little Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade thrown in for good measure. (Like Karl loved french-fried taters in Sling Blade, Joe Black loves peanut butter in Meet Joe Black.) As Susan's (Forlani's) nervous tics become tiresome, so does Joe Black's (Pitt's) blank, slack-jawed expression. This lack of range in the performances is exacerbated by the movie's epic running time. Whereas the characters might have been bearable in a movie of 90 minutes, Susan and Joe Black are exposed as shallow creations in a movie of 180 minutes. We shouldn't insist that all romantic comedies must fit within a two-hour time slot. But the longer the movie, the more substantial the characters must be.

Thank goodness Anthony Hopkins is on hand. While Pitt and Forlani's feather-light characters fail to sustain the movie, Hopkins injects the movie with intensity as he provides a passionate portrait of a man dealing with his impending death--and wrangling for control of his life's work at the same time.

Directed by Martin Brest (who also directed the 2½ hour long Scent of a Woman), Meet Joe Black is a mixed bag. With more concise storytelling, Brest might have lessened the impact of the movie's insubstantial romance plot, but the arrogance behind allowing this production to reach three hours in length ultimately undermines the movie's effectiveness.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]


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