Film Reviews

Death Rattle

Well, now we know why the term "bored to death" was invented. Meet Joe Black takes an interesting idea--Death assumes human form and comes to Earth to learn about human existence--and reduces it to a flat, uninspired, interminably slow movie. Not only slow but long: a full three hours.

Produced and directed by Martin Brest (1992's Scent of a Woman, 1988's Midnight Run), Meet Joe Black tells the story of media tycoon William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins, always good, even when the material isn't), a man at the top of his game who has remained decent and compassionate despite enjoying enormous wealth and success--a man who is suddenly visited by Death and told that his time is at hand. Death, however, is willing to put off the inevitable for a few days in order to walk among the living and experience life, with Parrish as his reluctant guide. To do so, Death must assume corporeal form; at random he selects a young man, takes his life, and inhabits his body. The body of Brad Pitt.

Parrish introduces his guest to curious friends and family members as a new business associate named Joe Black. No one is more surprised than Parrish's younger daughter, a medical intern named Susan (Claire Forlani), because her father's new friend appears to be the same man whom she met and became smitten with that very morning. Parrish grows increasingly uneasy as Susan and "Joe" fall in love.

Although several important plot elements are different, Meet Joe Black is essentially a remake of the far superior 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, which was itself adapted from a Twenties stage play (another version of Death Takes a Holiday was produced for television in the Seventies). Although four writers are credited with the current script (Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, Bo Goldman), none of them seems to have come up with a well-defined character for Pitt to play, nor an imaginative story for him to inhabit. Instead, they fashion a kind of all-purpose, fish-out-of-water scenario in which the humor (what little there is) stems from the basic setup rather than the protagonist's specific personality. And Joe's knowledge of the temporal world proves oddly inconsistent: He knows how to dress himself but doesn't have a clue how to use silverware; his verbal skills are exemplary one minute and nonexistent the next. The overall dialogue is pedestrian or worse: When Pitt's Joe adopts a Jamaican accent in order to communicate with a dying woman in Susan's care, the results are embarrassing.

One of the film's most glaring problems is its slow-as-molasses pace. Dead air occupies more space than does dialogue, as actors pause before, during and after sentences. If all the unnecessary pauses in the movie were eliminated, the picture would be half an hour shorter. Pitt and Forlani are little more than fashion-magazine somnambulents, although responsibility for that lies more with directorial and script inadequacies than with any shortcomings on the part of the actors. Certainly, in the past Pitt has proven himself a fine actor when given intelligent material. As for the beautiful Forlani, she projects a seductive vulnerability, but she also has a way of pursing her lips and squinting her eyes that suggests a model striking a pose.

Hopkins tries valiantly--and mostly successfully--to make Parrish a believable character whose unexpected encounter with Death (and death) gets him thinking about who he is and what he is leaving behind. When Hopkins is onscreen alone--or in a couple of scenes with Pitt--the viewer realizes what this movie might have been had more care been put into the script. Marcia Gay Harden has the thankless task of playing Susan's older sister Allison, a mindless twit whose only concern in life is throwing a big party for her father's 65th birthday. Even though her inane, irritating behavior stems from an insecurity about her worth as a person, it's easy to see why Parrish prefers the company of his younger daughter.

It's difficult not to compare Meet Joe Black with its 1934 predecessor, which took a far more interesting tack in terms of story line. Death's motivation for coming to Earth in the current version is unclear. According to the press notes, he (it?) decides that he could learn a lot from Parrish because the media giant is a man of great wealth and power who has retained his integrity. That doesn't come across in the film, and Death's sudden appearance feels contrived. The setup for Death Takes a Holiday proved far more reasonable and interesting: Death arrives here to try to discover why men fear him so much, why they cling so tenaciously to life and resist leaving the world.

The original movie also posed far more provocative questions by dispensing with a human love interest for the female protagonist. Her attraction to Death goes beyond his human incarnation, opening a whole range of thoughts and ideas not touched upon in the more traditional love story of Meet Joe Black. But criticizing a movie for not living up to an earlier version is perhaps unfair. A film should rise or fall on its own merits, and this one falls--and fails.

Meet Joe Black
Directed by Martin Brest; with Brad Pitt.

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Jean Oppenheimer