Meet Joe Black Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

I want you to get swept away. I want you to levitate. I want you to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish.
Meet Joe Black

Whether you attribute it to the impending millennium and its associated forms of hysteria, or the fact that the influential Baby Boomers are rapidly approaching their twilight years, a number of reflective and life-affirming films have come out of Hollywood in the past year. Whether you are talking about "Titanic", "City of Angels", "Deep Impact", "Saving Private Ryan", "One True Thing", "Pleasantville", "Last Night", or even "Antz", the message has been the same-- to make the most of one's short time here on this Earth and the brief moments of enlightenment over a lifetime of emotional dishonesty. Continuing this trend of cinematic spiritualism comes "Meet Joe Black", a touching and eloquent tale of life seen through the eyes of Death.

Love is passion... obsession... someone you can't live without.
Anthony Hopkins

It is just before the 65th birthday of William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins of "The Edge"), a widower and powerful media tycoon. Going about his normal business, he is haunted by a strange ethereal voice, incessantly repeating the same word-- "yes". After suffering a mild heart attack, the meaning of this paradisiacal utterance is clear. Is William Parrish's time on this Earth coming to an end? Yes.

I'm Death.
No you're not... you're just some kid dressed in a suit.
The suit came with the body I took.

However, when Death (Brad Pitt of "Seven Years in Tibet"), occupying the body of a young man, does come knocking to claim William's life, a deal is struck. In return for time to get his affairs in order, William must serve as Death's tour guide on a brief excursion through the world of the living. Wanting to gain a true appreciation of corporeal existence, Death maneuvers himself into William's household, calling himself 'Joe Black'. His first earthly experience is the family dinner, attended by William's two daughters. In addition to meeting the older and quick-to-please Allison (Marcia Gay Harden of "Desperate Measures") and her dim-witted yet amiable husband Quince (Jeffrey Tambor of "The Gary Shandling Show"), Death comes to know Susan (Claire Forlani, last seen in "The Rock"), a bright and attractive physician.

It's a shame that whoever you were this morning couldn't be here tonight.
Claire Forlani and Brad Pitt

However, it is not the first time that Susan and the mysterious Joe Black have met. Susan is perplexed by the odd behavior of the man sitting at her father's dinner table, since she had met the same man in a coffee shop earlier that day... before he had been assumed by Death. Instead of the loquacious and magnetic personality she came to admire in the coffee shop, Joe Black seems curiously quiet and seemingly out of place. However, as Death follows William on his daily rounds and comes to know the members of the Parrish household, Susan and Death find themselves bewitched by one another, leading to a passionate romance, much to William's chagrin.

Take it easy Bill... you'll give yourself a heart attack and ruin my vacation.

"Meet Joe Black" is the second remake of the 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday" (the first was a forgettable 1971 made-for-TV movie). While the central theme remains unchanged, an allegorical tale of Death exploring the human condition and feeling what it truly means to 'be alive', director Martin Brest's ("Scent of a Woman") take on the material has more than doubled the original film's running length to three hours. And while the original film also whimsically portrayed the global effects of Death's vacation, the script chooses to tighten the focus on the dynamics within William's household and the growing passion between Death and Susan. Also, the script does an excellent job of handling the film's numerous subplots, allowing each of the major characters to 'come clean' by film's end.

It's almost as certain as death and taxes.
Death and taxes?
Yes, death and taxes.
What an odd pairing.
Brad Pitt

Brest unspools the story at a very leisurely pace, which ends up both its strength and its downfall. While the slow and deliberate strides help to build up to a highly emotional and provocative denouement, at times the film becomes frustrating to watch, as long and indulgent pauses are taken between lines, testing the composure of even the most patient viewer. While some scenes are certainly aided by the dramatic pauses, there are numerous scenes in which the drawn out discourses come across stilted.

Do you love me?
Yes, I do.
More than you love peanut butter?

But pacing considerations aside, you could not ask for a better-looking place to spend three hours. With its luxurious and sumptuous production design, the film is a visual treat, using impressively lavish and artfully decorated sets that play up on the fantasy elements of the story. Furthermore, with the help of the careful lensing of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Brest has created the perfect ambience for such an exquisite film. The film's third act, which takes place during William's birthday party, is clearly the visual highlight of the film, using a night sky alight with fireworks as a resplendent backdrop to the dramatic resolutions below.

You're just a kid dressed up in a suit!

Furthermore, Pitt, Hopkins, and Forlani play off of each other well, sharing an amiable on-screen chemistry. Strongest among the principals, surprisingly not, is Hopkins. His portrayal of the dying William evokes sentiments of both stateliness and resolved determination, and it is hard to imagine any other actor in his place. Pitt is certainly a good choice for Death, combining his dashing good looks with the wide-eyed and impish charm needed for the role, and he adeptly manages the vacillations between evoking audience sympathy and then spurning in. Furthermore, Pitt's interactions with Hopkins and Forlani come across as very natural, especially Forlani. And while Forlani certainly gives a touching and warm performance, her range seems limited to playing Susan with a constant timorous demeanor. Furthermore, Forlani's character is given very little to work with, other than being a doctor and settling for second best, leaving a missed opportunity to explore the dramatic possibilities of a physician falling in love with what she fights against everyday-- Death.

If I introduce you and tell them who you are, I don't think anyone will want to stay for dinner.

"Meet Joe Black", despite its laggard pacing and excessive running time, is a provocative and poignant film-- a film that demands reflection and examination upon viewing. Boosted by some excellent performances, opulent production design, and articulate discourse, this one is certain to please...

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

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