Meet Joe Black
(US 1998)

Brad Pitt, Claire Forlani, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden

Director: Martin Brest

Writing credits: Ron Osborn & Jeff Reno

Universal * 180 minutes

MEET JOE BLACK (which ought to be subtitled "I've Met The Greatest Guy -- Of Course He's Death, But You Can't Have Everything") is director Martin Brest's (SCENT OF A WOMAN, BEVERLY HILLS COP) turgid Brad Pitt love-fest. If your heart goes pitter-pat at the thought of watching Brad Pitt for three hours, you'll love this film. If you're like me, well, you may wish you'd stayed home to watch Vinny Testaverde blow the Jets' first-place position in the last eleven seconds of the game.

This three hour endurance-test-in-desperate-need-of-an-editor is clearly an indication of what happens when the suits in Hollywood do a post-mortem on the 800-pound-gorilla that was last year's TITANIC. I can just hear them: "Yeah, we've got a cute blond boy, a pretty doe-eyed girl (and this one ain't even fat like that English dame), doomed romance, a suitor who's a villain -- it's TITANIC all over again, so sure, we can get away with making it three hours long!" Of course they forgot that films of that length need at least one of the following: spectacle, a great script, or characters about whom we give a damn.

A remake of 1934's DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, MEET JOE BLACK deals with media mogul William Parrish's coming to terms, literally, with his own death. As portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, Parrish is hardly your typical rich scumbag; on the contrary, he is devoted to his daughters, still speaks glowingly of his departed wife, and has a voice that could sound profound reading the telephone book. His elder daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden) is trying frantically to earn his love by throwing him an ostentatious 65th birthday party. His younger daughter Susan (Clair Forlani) is theoretically in love with Parrish's chosen successor Drew (the weaselly Jake Weber, in the Billy Zane Villain role), but Dad is not convinced, and admonishes her to leave herself open for "lightning to strike."

Of course, this being a movie, it does, in the form of Brad Pitt, while Susan is having coffee in a New York coffee shop. In one of the most horribly-scripted "meet cute" scenarios in recent years, he smiles adorably, he stirs coffee just the way she does, he takes the same amount of sugar she does, and he's also a one-woman man who's unattached. Yeah, right. Well, we know that Death needs to take over Mr. Cutie-Pie's body in order to observe the human condition prior to taking Parrish to his eternal reward, so he is conveniently killed off (in a particularly satisfying manner, because by this point I was already bored stiff). Of course, Susan is shocked to find her coffee-shop swain dining at her father's house the following night, although she is baffled at his sudden change of demeanor.

As the Grim Reaper (a.k.a. the eponymous Joe Black), Pitt finally gets to shed his "Aw, shucks, ain't I adorable?" persona and don his "Oh, woe is me, aren't I sensitive?" persona, in which he looks misty-eyed most of the time. This is truly a shame, because when he's allowed to transcend his perfectly-streaked hair and baby-blue eyes, he is actually a decent actor, as we saw inTWELVE MONKEYS. Here, he and Hopkins develop a nice rapport, and in his "fish-out-of-water" scenes, in which he is becoming acquainted with being in mortal form, he shows a deft comic touch.

The relationship between Susan and Joe doesn't quite ring true, for she seems genuinely disappointed and baffled by his change of demeanor from the grinning young fool in the coffee shop; yet the next thing we know, they are making love by the indoor pool of her father's country home (which somehow has gained a bed since the first time we see this room). The hopeful trend of "less is more" continues in the filming of the love scene, which omits body parts in favor of faces. However, I wish that casting directors would realize that women who look great in skin-tight dresses tend to look emaciated once out of them.

At any rate, Susan and Joe fall in love, and Joe tries to find a way to take Susan with him when he and Parrish cross what appears to be the Rainbow Bridge familiar to pet owners everywhere. She seems to become aware of who he is, and seems curiously unfazed. Of course, this being the 1990's, with everything pre-screened for focus group audiences, a phony happy ending is tacked on in an effort to make the film more marketable. By the time the end mercifully arrived, I felt like I did on those long-ago days when we'd plan head home from relatives' house at 9 in the morning and still be talking outside by the car at 4 in the afternoon. In my family, we called it a "Jewish Goodbye", and Parrish's endless birthday party was strangely evocative of the restlessness I felt on those days.

It really is a shame that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camera is so totally in love with Brad Pitt, for this is a fine leading lady debut for Clair Forlani. Her high cheekbones and Meditteranean exoticism contrast nicely with Pitt's Aryan blondness. She is just as pretty as he is, but the camera is so besotted with Brad Pitt's star quality that she unfairly recedes into the background. Also of note is a terrific supporting performance by Jeffrey Tambor as the other daughter Allison's well-meaning bumbler of a husband. If there is any saving grace to this endurance test, it is Anthony Hopkins, whose thoughtful rich guy is a refreshing change from the cardboard villains we're accustomed to seeing in boardrooms. He classes up any film in which he appears.

As for me, well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't care if he does look like Brad Pitt, if I realized that I had recently slept with Death, I would want to take an extremely long shower. As it is, I wanted to take an extremely long nap.

- Jill Cozzi


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