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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Meet Joe Black (review)

Death Becomes Him… Not

Is it a coincidence, do you think, that Meet Joe Black, a movie about Death personified, is so, er, terminally boring?

Personally, I’da thought Death himself would be more interesting than a doe-eyed Brad Pitt doing his best Forrest Gump imitation. I mean, he’s got a pretty cool job that takes him all over the world. He meets people from literally all walks of life. He’s been around, you know? But director Martin Brest and his four (count ’em) screenwriters would have us believe that Death is so busy with his grim reaping that he hasn’t had time to develop any semblance of a personality. Instead, Death — Death! — has become Hollywood’s favorite clichéd male of the moment: the soft, mushy, boyish, sexually non-threatening pin-up. Yawn.
William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins: Instinct, The Mask of Zorro) is a sort of Ted Turner-esque media-mogul type, only with an English accent instead of a Southern one. On the eve of his 65th birthday, he’s wealthy beyond dreams of avarice and his news corporation is about to sell for zillions to a competitor in the biz. He has daughters who dote on him — Susan (Claire Forlani: Mystery Men), a doctor, who’s involved with Drew (Jake Weber: Dangerous Beauty), Bill’s trusted right-hand-man; and Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), who’s married to another member of the company’s board, Quince (Jeffrey Tambor: There’s Something About Mary).

Life would be perfect, except that Bill’s been having chest pain — any idiot could see he’s having a bunch of heart attacks, but Bill doesn’t bother seeing a doctor. No, he waits until Death himself (Brad Pitt: Fight Club,, The Devil’s Own) shows up with an offer: Let him hang around for a while down here on Earth, and Bill can live a bit longer. Bill agrees, and introduces his new friend around as Joe Black.

Oh, what a raucous black comedy this could have been: Bill running out to the best heart specialists in the world, trying to cheat Death himself, while Death has a wild time trying out all the sensual pleasures of the flesh. But no — Meet Joe Black is staid, somber, serious, oh-so earnest. At one point, Bill says to Death, “You’re violating the laws of the universe!” Really, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could say that line with a straight face. Hopkins manages to make it sound Death is breaking some arcane tax law.

And it’s three freaking hours long. Three hours of endless meetings of the board of Bill’s company while the sale of the company is rehashed and dinner parties during which the details of Bill’s humongous birthday bash are discussed. Who cares what party favors should be given away to guests? Poor Death — he must wonder what all the fuss about Life is about.

The truncated airline version of Meet Joe Black is credited as “An Alan Smithee Film,” which means Brest did not see the shortened version as worthy of having his name attached. Which means he actually wanted his actors dragging scenes out as their characters stare at one another in silence until the viewer wants to scream “Say something already!” You could step out for half the running time of this film and not miss anything, as most of it consists of characters sitting around wondering, “Who’s Joe Black?”

Who, indeed? Death should have panache, style, something dark rippling underneath. Death should be almost irresistibly sexy. Instead, Joe Black is, as a friend of mine has so hilariously termed the dewy version of Brad Pitt to whom we’re subject here, like “a newly hatched chick,” all soft and warm and innocent and cuddly. And we’re supposed to believe that Susan has fallen “head over heels for Joe,” that she’s experiencing the electric, obsessive love her dad suggested she needed instead of the comfortable relationship she has with dorky Drew. Not only does the icy Forlani fail to ignite any sparks with Pitt, but there’s precious little reason evident why any woman would fall for Joe.

And top it all with ridiculous plot coincidences; torpid, stilted dialogue; and a nice, pat happy ending, and you get a piece of glossy Hollywood tripe that is, well, deadly dull.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for an accident scene, some sexuality and brief strong language

viewed at home on a small screen

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