Meet Joe Black (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Meet Joe Black has the dubious distinction of being the longest film to date of 1998. It is also one of the most tedious and bombastic. At a hair under three hours, it's shorter than James Cameron's Titanic, yet, when it comes to pace, Joe Black is glacial. Director Martin Brest, who helmed the enjoyable-but-also-too-long Scent of a Woman, is at his absolute worst here. Brest transforms a seemingly foolproof idea into an overblown bore.

There are slow movies, slooooooooooow movies, and then there's Meet Joe Black. Somehow, Brest manages to take a script lacking the content to justify a two hour motion picture and drag it out to three. Several obvious techniques are applied to accomplish this. The first, and most obvious, is that the director forces his actors to insert frequent, lengthy pauses into all dialogue (I kept wondering if he believed he was directing William Shatner). It wouldn't be as bad if the conversations were well-written, but most of what the characters say is sophomoric and rarely of much interest. Then, to add insult to injury, Brest never lets a scene end naturally, but keeps things going long past the point where the audience has lost interest.

Meet Joe Black was loosely suggested by the 1934 movie, Death Takes a Holiday, which, in turn, was based on a '20s stage play of the same name. This is not a strict remake - in fact, a key subplot is eliminated entirely - but it uses the black-and-white film's central conceit: what would happen if Death decided to temporarily abandon his place in the cosmos and reside for a brief time on Earth? Meet Joe Black postulates that he might look like Brad Pitt, fall in love with a beautiful young woman, and help save a good man's company. One thing this movie ignores, however, is how the universe fares with Death on vacation. Death Takes a Holiday went to great pains to describe the horrors of a world in which there was still illness and injury, but no death. Disappointingly, that potentially-fascinating aspect of the situation is ignored by Meet Joe Black, which wastes the bulk of its three hours on a passionless romance and an absurd corporate takeover scheme.

The film introduces Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a corporate tycoon on the verge of celebrating his 65th birthday. He's also about to die from a heart attack. One night, after dinner, Death (Brad Pitt) appears with an offer: he'll put off "taking" Bill if, in return, Bill will introduce him to the wonders of being alive. The longer Bill can keep him interested in remaining corporeal, the longer the reprieve. So Bill introduces Death, renamed "Joe Black," to his family: daughters Susan (Claire Forlani) and Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), son-in-law Quince (Jeffrey Tambor), and future son-in-law Drew (Jake Weber). With his almost childlike innocence, Joe is an immediate hit with everyone except Drew, who sees him as a rival for Susan's affections. His fears are justified; soon Joe and Susan are falling for each other, and there's nothing that Bill can do to stop the doomed relationship.

The centerpiece of Meet Joe Black is the romance between Joe and Susan, but it's not the kind of motion picture love affair that causes the spirit to soar. Forlani and Pitt may both possess matinee-style good looks, but they generate no heat or chemistry, and, as a result, they end up being featured in some of the most painfully protracted and awkward romantic sequences of any movie this year. As bland as they are together, they're not much more compelling when apart. At least Susan shows hints of three-dimensionality. Joe is unreadable - sometimes ingenuous, sometimes ominous, but never interesting. (And, since Death has been watching humankind for eons, how is it that he doesn't understand what kissing and sex are?) When it comes to a spiritual being taking a physical form, Nicholas Cage's angel in City of Angels wins the 1998 sweepstakes.

In general, Brad Pitt is not a terrible actor, and I give him credit for trying to broaden his range, but his work here is execrable. Pitt's acting, in concert with Brest's heavy-handed direction, makes this character a complete waste of celluloid. Joe Black looks like death warmed over. Anthony Hopkins does his best to add a dose of class to the proceedings, but there's only so much he can do, and he isn't given an especially meaty part. Claire Forlani, the young beauty from Basquiat, shows great promise, although there are a few scenes when she looks like a deer caught in a car's headlights. Jake Weber is suitably despicable as the traitorous Drew, and Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor provide adequate support.

As is Brest's trademark, there's plenty of emotional button-pushing, only this time, the director doesn't have a good feel for how best to manipulate the audience. There's a big speech near the end and a lot of melodramatic music, but, instead of leading the viewer into a state of emotional rapture, it all rings hollow. Perhaps it's because there's no rapport between the audience and the characters, or perhaps it's because the movie has long since worn out its welcome. Either way, the grand finale, like almost everything else in the movie, is a dud. As far as epics go, this one is a failure. In fact, by comparison, Meet Joe Black makes last year's Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic tale, The Postman, seem like a model of restraint and solid storytelling.

Meet Joe Black (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:58
U.S. Release Date: 1998-11-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1