Friday November 13, 1998
Death takes a holiday in "Meet Joe Black," but does that mean everyone else has to slow down?
The fanciful story of what happens when the original Big Chill takes human form and investigates life on Earth, "Meet Joe Black" is more convinced of its worth than we are. Clocking in at a self-important two hours and 59 minutes, this elongated romantic fable is impossible to sustain at a running time better suited to the fall of the Roman empire.
Once upon a time, in 1934 in fact, this same notion was filmed by Mitchell Leisen as "Death Takes a Holiday" and did a quite elegant job in a brisk 78 minutes. In this day and age, even as talented and meticulous a director as Martin Brest ("Beverly Hills Cop," "Midnight Run," "Scent of a Woman") has felt the need to inflate the tale until it floats around like one of those ungainly balloons in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Not helping the time go faster is the way star Brad Pitt has ended up playing Death. Ordinarily the most charismatic of actors, with an eye-candy smile and a winning ease, Pitt approaches this role largely on a leash, hanging around more like the protagonist of "I Walked With a Zombie" than a flesh-and-blood leading man.
While this acting choice may be defensible in abstract terms, watching it on screen is nothing like fun. Perhaps Pitt, like Julia Roberts before him, is for the moment chafing at being considered no more than a pretty face and has determined to in effect hide his light under a basket. Love me, not my smile is the idea, but the absence of that singular likability is tough to swallow.
Making the loss worse is that the Pitt everyone has come to see--the grinning, tousle-haired knockout--makes an appearance in the film's first 15 minutes and then disappears. He plays a young man in a Manhattan coffee shop who hits it off with Susan Parrish (Claire Forlani), a beautiful but earnest doctor whose father has just sagely advised her that in terms of love she should be looking for "passion, obsession, someone you can't live without."
That father would be the patrician William Parrish, chairman of Parrish Communications and all-around wise tycoon. Played by Anthony Hopkins as a close relative of his role in "The Edge," Parrish has managed to remain a kindly captain of industry despite being one of the world's richest humans. He's so well-balanced, in fact, he tolerates the intrusive neuroses of his other daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), who's planning to give him an over-the-top 65th birthday party.
Only one thing troubles Parrish, and that's an otherworldly voice he keeps hearing. Soon enough that voice takes over the body of Pitt (well, whose body would you take?) and shows up in Parrish's elegant apartment. He's Death, he says, come to take Parrish away, but before he goes he "wants to take a look around" at the world that so fears him.
Parrish, who hardly has a choice, agrees to have Joe Black, as he comes to be called, hang out with him around the clock. This confounds Drew (Jake Weber), Parrish's right-hand man and daughter Susan's boyfriend, and it completely dumbfounds Susan, who wonders, as much of the audience will, who stole the personality from that cute guy in the coffee shop.
"Joe Black's" crowd of screenwriters (Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno, and Kevin Wade and Bo Goldman) has followed the recent trend by having Death know very little of this earthly life. Like Nicolas Cage's character in "City of Angels," Death is no savvy traveler but kind of an idiot savant, someone who knows the big picture but has never tasted peanut butter and, cute as he is, never so much as been kissed. That, obviously, is going to change.
Personality-deficient though he may be, Joe Black is undeniably attractive, and it's no surprise that (a) Susan's going to be powerfully attracted to him and (b) that's going to present some problems. After all, Death has got to be a tougher guy to spend quality time with than Saddam Hussein.
Where "Meet Joe Black" runs into most of its trouble is that everything happens so terribly slowly it makes the suspension of disbelief this story has to have that much harder to sustain. And the addition of a completely predictable and time-wasting subplot about a potential corporate takeover of Parrish Communications is no help either.
"Meet Joe Black" does have some moments that shows what might have been. The romance scenes are pleasant once they finally arrive and the lively Jamaican woman (Lois Kelly-Miller) who recognizes Joe for his true self at a hospital almost steals the picture. "Joe Black's" grand finale creates a bit of emotion as well, but the film's been going on for so long, it's hard to separate those feelings from simple relief that the darn thing is finally over.
Meet Joe Black, 1998. MPAA rating; PG-13 for an accident scene, some sexuality and brief strong language. A City Light Films production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Martin Brest. Producer Martin Brest. Executive producer Ronald L. Schwary. Screenplay Ron Osborn & Jeff Reno, and Kevin Wade and Bo Goldman. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editors Joe Hutshing, Michael Tronick. Costumes Aude Bronson-Howard, David C. Robinson. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Dante Ferretti. Art director Robert Guerra. Set decorator Leslie Bloom. Running time: 2 hours, 59 minutes. Brad Pitt as Joe Black. Anthony Hopkins as William Parrish. Claire Forlani as Susan Parrish. Jake Weber as Drew. Marcia Gay Harden as Allison. Jeffrey Tambor as Quince.