The question of rather you will enjoy or hate Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black is dependent on rather the movie’s premise intrigues and fascinates you. The premise is this: Death, wishing to taste life for the first time, decides to take the form of a recently deceased young man and uses a dying billionaire as his tour guide. If that sounds like something you’ll like, then you will most likely enjoy Meet Joe Black, warts and all. If it doesn’t, well, then you needn’t bother with this film, since you won’t be able to look past some of its glaring faults.
Meet Joe Black stars Brad Pitt as Death himself and Anthony Hopkins as Bill Parrish, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon who is approaching his 65th birthday and the end of his life. Death, taking the form of a young man, approaches Parrish with an intriguing offer: show Death around the living world and Parrish will be spared death for as long as Death himself is kept interested; when Death decides it’s time to go, Parrish will also go with him. Parrish, of course, readily agrees, since death is something no one is ready for, especially the constantly-busy Parrish, who has made a career out of working his tail off and ignoring his two grown daughters, Susan (Claire Forlani) and Allison (Marcia Gay Harden).
A complication in both Death and Parrish’s plans arise when Susan meets Death, who is now going by the name of Joe Black, and recognizes him (not Death, but the young man’s body that Death has taken over) as a man she was smitten with just this morning at a coffee shop. It was love at first introduction for Susan and likewise for the young man, at least until he met a most unfortunate end — although Susan doesn’t know this. If the fact that his youngest daughter is falling for Death isn’t bad enough, Parrish’ supposedly “Number One” man at his company is plotting a hostile takeover and is threatening to destroy everything Parrish worked so hard to build. What’s a tycoon facing death, literally, to do?
If there is one big fault with Meet Joe Black it’s the film’s running time, which is just under 3 hours minus the credits. The movie is intriguing and I thoroughly enjoyed all of Death’s adventures in the land of the living, but the film simply goes on for way too long and a lot of cutting could have been done to keep the pacing brisk and the film under 2 hours. Even so, I enjoyed Meet Joe Black more than I thought I would. Having known that the movie was over 3 hours and having read and heard numerous reports of its slow pacing, I went into the film without much enthusiasm except, of course, for the premise.
Meet Joe Black is essentially a Fish Out of Water movie, and I’ve expressed many times how much I enjoy the genre. Death is unfamiliar with life, and is surprised and awkward around other people, and finds himself addicted to peanut butter. In one funny scene, a character mentions the certainty of a situation and adds, “Like Death and Taxes,” to which Death, as Joe Black, questions him further on the details of the phrase. It’s certainly one of the movie’s more hilarious scenes.
As always, Anthony Hopkins is superb as Parrish. He plays the billionaire tycoon with a good balance of vulnerability at the prospect of his mortality rearing its head and strong will as he struggles mightily to keep his company and fight the takeover. As Death/Joe Black, Brad Pitt holds his own against Hopkins. The two men’s private scenes are electric and downright entertaining. Pitt proves to be incredibly well-equip to go one-on-one with the he’s-so-talented-it’s-scary Hopkins.
Claire Forlani, as the apple in Parrish’s eye, does fine as Susan, although she does look awkward in more than one scene. (Hasn’t Forlani ever worn heels before? On more than one occasion I was afraid she might tip over while walking in them.) Forlani has soulful eyes and it helps to add emotion to her scenes with Pitt’s Joe Black. Marcia Gay Harden has very little to do as Parrish’s older and hopelessly devoted daughter. Even so, she owns every scene she is in but one wishes the writers and director Brest had given her much more to do. As Drew, the would-be jackal, Jake Weber must have mistaken his role for a low-life gangster, because he comes across as an Al Capone wannabe instead of a corporate raider. Weber is extremely embarrassing, not to mention grating, as the irritating Drew.
Meet Joe Black is a slow movie, as everyone has mentioned. The film could have been dramatically improved with a lot of cutting and nothing important would have been lost. As it stands, Meet Joe Black reeks of a director’s self-indulgence and inability to “cut his baby,” as the saying goes. Sometimes less is more, Marty boy.
Martin Brest (director) / Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, Bo Goldman (screenplay)
CAST: Brad Pitt …. Joe Black
Anthony Hopkins …. William Parrish
Claire Forlani …. Susan Parrish
Jake Weber …. Drew
Marcia Gay Harden …. Allison
Jeffrey Tambor …. Quince