Skip to main content

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black
(1998)

(SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman, this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

William Parrish: To make the journey and not fall deeply in love. Well, you haven’t lived life at all.

I’m unsure how much you can really claim Meet Joe Black as a profound take on all things afterlife, however. This loose remake of Death Takes a Holiday (1934) is hardly the stuff of the sparse ranks of Hollywood’s spiritually aware cognoscenti (Bruce Joel Rubin, Michael Tolkin and Terrence Malick, basically). The screenplay boasts four credited writers on top of the four involved in the previous movie and its preceding play (the most prolific being Bo Goldman, who also contributed to Scent of a Woman). And yet, this is a case that doesn’t feel as if has suffered from too many cooks, which may in part be attributable to the performances (Hopkins in particular) and the direction. Brest, if you hadn’t guessed from the three-hour running time, is in no hurry. He wants to immerse himself, Death and you in this world. He largely succeeds in doing so, considerably aided by Emmanuel Lubezki’s opulent cinematography (he’d later be Malick’s man). And that’s in spite of at-times extremely oblique angles of approach.

Take Death. We aren’t talking Final Destination’s hyperkinetic terminal velocity here, The Seventh Seal’s chess fiend or Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’s loser at Battleships (William Sadler is, I have no qualms in admitting, my favourite incarnation). He’s a curious… fellow? One who decides to find out just what it is people – human people – do all day. A bit like Richard Scarry. The thing about this is that it requires a traditionally one-dimensional, functional force to act with questionable autonomy, which in turn invites the application of motivation, backstory and a reflective personality. None of which we actually get here. There is no shortage of cultural psychopomps to draw upon, be they spirits or demons or gods. Your Thanatos, Grim Reaper, Mot, Hel, King Yama, Abaddon, Azrael (one of the Four Horsemen) and the Angel of Death (The Bible), but there’s generally a scrupulous avoidance of any insight into what makes them tick. They are their designated purpose.

William Parrish: You’re not Death. You’re just a kid in a suit.
Joe Black: The suit came with the body.

Brest and co make no effort to rock that boat. There’s no mention of a hierarchical system of which Joe is a part. The best we get is that this Death is an impartial operator, arriving at the appointed time rather acting in a vengeful or vindictive manner. Cause and effect appear to be his prime mover, such that emotional traits are foreign to his nature until he takes on human form and duly discovers wanting, yearning and attachment.

Because he is embodied as Brad, and an absurdly childlike, virginal Brad at that, it is much more difficult to grasp his pre-existing state than when he is Anthony Hopkins as a persistent, all-knowing whisper. Indeed, the best Death by far in this movie is announced in Hopkins’s ethereal voice (although, I also rather like Pitt’s you-wouldn’t-get-away-with-that-now adoption of Jamaican patois when conversing with Lois Kelly Miller’s terminally-ill hospital patient. And it’s true, she is a bit of an – ailing – “Magical Negro” trope, but she’s also given some of the best dialogue in the whole movie, so I think we can probably wave that one through. If not, feel free to cancel me).

When explaining – or not – himself to the impossibly sculpted Claire Forlani as Susan (Harvey clearly thought so, by her account), he suggests a degree of restlessness in his role: “I have a certain function to perform and it seems to take up most of my time… And sometimes I speculate that I haven’t left room for, uh, anything else”. Is he an emissary from God? A friend of the devil? He describes himself, rather exclusively, as “the most lasting and significant element in existence”. But he also warns Drew (Jake Weber rising to the challenge of playing an unadulterated louse) he will reserve for him “a millennium in a place with no doors”, suggesting a traditional hell type affair is very much on the agenda for some souls. This is rather underlined when Bill/William Parrish (Hopkins), about to depart his mortal coil, asks “Should I be afraid?” and receives the reply “Not a man like you”. His interaction with Miller is one-part comforter, albeit in a matter of fact way, which may lead one to infer he adopts a pose reflecting the karmic journey of the imminently non-corporeal (one might further expand on this and suggest Death is, in a way a mirror, albeit not so much so that it’s a distinct entity belonging to the individual, per The Asphyx).

Joe Black: I want to have a look around before I take you.
William Parrish: What do I get in return?
Joe Black: In return, you get time.

While Death/Joe’s human interaction with Susan makes him seem like just another soul “at heart”, it’s in his battle of wills with Bill that the most resonant aspect of his possible heritage emerges. The precise entity that is Death is undefined, but his behaviour is that of a fallen angel, embroiled and immersed in the flesh, unable to resist the daughters of man and who allows carnal – or if we’re generous, emotional – thoughts to corrupt his judgement. In this case, Joe’s selfish intentions require Bill standing firm, the love he has for his daughter overcoming any trepidation over Death’s potential punitive measures. He accuses Joe of “violating the laws of the universe” and “taking whatever you want because it pleases you”. Which inevitably provokes Joe’s ire, not used to being reprimanded (“I’ll say it again, be careful Bill”). Particularly, as it emerges, because he knows Bill is right.

This is where what might have been a rather soppily – but sweetly, yes – indifferent love story, destined to end in disappointment, develops some bite. Because Death just being a nice guy, as innocent virginal Joe, with Susan would have been a cop out. Presented with the challenge “Did you tell her who you are?” he dodges and becomes irate, but he duly recognises the truth of his impermanent holiday, and that he cannot stay, so resisting the fate of his fallen brethren. I’ll admit, however, that I don’t entirely buy Bill graciously thanking Joe for relinquishing Susan; it should have been left unsaid, since Bill’s rebuff of Joe offering similar gratitude is rightly scoffed at.

Susan Parrish: You’re someone else. You’re… You’re Joe.
Joe Black: Yes, I’m Joe.

Pitt’s performance is an interesting one. Not wholly successful, I’d suggest – I know he didn’t rate it, and neither did many critics – but then, that kind of impassive pose is no easy task. Jeff Bridges was doing something along these lines – with far greater skill, it must be stressed – in Starman, as an alien in an unfamiliar human body. There are times when Pitt absolutely nails it, be it at family dinners or board meetings (“Thank you for the delicious cookies”). And he is, of course, a shoe-in for the blonde dreamboat Susan cannot resist; he spends the first ten minutes playing the nicest guy ever. Then he has to backtrack into something more regimented and less showy. The key sign this is largely working is that Brad holds his own against Ant, who gets to go full Ant at various points, in one of his most entertaining Hollywood roles (probably because it’s one that is entirely based on reflection, an area where Hopkins is like a duck to water. Why, he can even appear philosophically at peace while deceiving the public at large over a fake jab).

William Parrish: Stay open. Who knows, lightning could strike.

Elsewhere, Pitt is less successful. I was put in mind of Gilliam’s comments on his 12 Monkeys performance – still one of his, if not his, most atypical – where he surprises, not least in his manner, delivery and cadence. Sometimes Brad gets the unemotive delivery down pat here, but when he attempts eloquent verbiage, the meaning is prone to escape him; he’s left with an unseemly collection of run-on words (one can only guess how awful he might have been as the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded). There are times too where studly Brad, in probably his most fawned-over, languid-youth period (when he was a Redford-esque pretty boy, before he got jacked for Fight Club), overdoes the lost-puppy look. I can’t fault Forlani’s reactive performance at all. She’s utterly luminous and convincingly besotted. Yet I still have to wonder at a line like “It was like making love with someone making love for the first time”, spoken with awed reverence. What, only not quite as quick?

The most interesting thing about Ant’s role here is that he gets to run the gamut. Mentor and novice. Wise man and chastened one. He absolutely pulls it off amid a Hollywood run where he was lending his name to some not so estimable fare (Instinct, Mission: Impossible 2, Bad Company). Meet Joe Black is one of those films where his very presence adds priceless dollars of insight, texture, class and dignity; I’m doubtful the rougher-edged Gene Hackman, initially sought, would have delivered that (he might have done, but he was rarely called on to be soft-edged and affecting). Yes, you are willing to swallow the idea of Bill Parrish as a fundamentally decent billionaire media mogul, and if you can do that, well, anything is possible (now, what I’d really like to see is Death showing up in Season Three of Succession. He’d have a ball there).

Susan Parrish: I wish you knew my father.

There’s the question at the end of whether Susan twigs that Joe is Death. I get the impression she does, even if her words suggest otherwise. She certainly knows something uncanny has happened, even if she doesn’t parse precisely that Death was responsible for evacuating Young Man in Coffee Shop’s body and replacing him with someone else (himself) before – very nicely and possibly violating the laws of the universe – bringing back Young Man in Coffee Shop for a happily ever after. Even with that – knowing that her father has gone to meet his maker – I wonder what she thinks has happened to Bill? She doesn’t rush to retrieve his crumpled corpse from the other side of the bridge. Does she think bodies usually evaporate when Death calls? Perhaps they do in this case. Although, that would create an awful lot of questions, not least with regard to inheriting the estate.

Joe Black: Bill, why at this juncture are you letting yourself be so concerned by business matters?

I don’t blame Brest for Alan Smithee-ing the cut-down two-hour version of the movie shown on TV and airlines, which cut out all the corporate intrigue. That side is fundamental to the balance and flow of the picture, and it’s also some of the most enjoyable material. Weber’s Drew is hugely boo-hiss, but that’s part of the fun; his indignation at the affront that is Joe’s presence, and his horrid backstabbing. In this realm comes Jeffrey Tambor, pre-not-being-trans-enough, as Bill’s son-in-law Quince, married to Marcia Gay Harden’s Allison (who gets a very good scene in which, fussing over Bill’s 65th birthday celebrations – eleven, hmmm – she tells her father it doesn’t matter to her that Susan is his favourite, as he is hers. If Bill was any kind of true wonder, he’d at least try to protest a little, but he smiles on benignly).

Quince: Do you like me Joe?
Joe Black: Oh yes, Quince. You’re one of my favourites.

Tambor’s loveable oaf manages to put his foot in it when it comes to Bill’s business affairs (passing on to Drew that Bill runs everything by Joe) and rather puts his foot in it with Allison (“I love little girls” he observes at dinner; she shoots him an understandably unimpressed look). His and Pitt’s scenes are some of the best here, though, the contrast between the heart-on-sleeve schlub and straight man working like gangbusters.

Drew: You’ll be farting through silk.

The “reveal” of Joe’s means of eliciting a confession from Drew (he is with the IRS) might have used some finessing, as it’s so rickety, I can’t believe Drew would fall for it. Besides which, I wanted to see how Bill planned to get him to own up. It’s interesting that this part occurs after Joe says goodbye to Susan – the only moment in the picture that is in danger of becoming interminable; I mean, I was with them, but it just wouldn’t stop – as it’s opposite to the way this would usually work. I suspect this was for two reasons; Joe and Bill needed to have made up, and sufficient time needed to have passed between Susan saying goodbye to Brad and then saying hi to Brad.

Yes, I admit it, I watched Meet Joe Black in two sittings, but that’s no bad thing. Movies used to have an intermission as a perfectly respectable essential, and this one would have been a prime contender if they were doing it regularly in 1998. Thomas Newman furnishes the picture with a highly complementary score, although I kept noticing cues from The Shawshank Redemption in there (it’s that soaring emotional transcendence he’s going for). That said, I’d have rather liked to hear David Holmes fashion a whole soundtrack from his atmospheric No Man’s Land track (which is used in the trailer).

William Parrish: It’s hard to let go, isn’t it?

So there you are. I like Meet Joe Black. Brad was down from the Hima-liars in Seven Years in Tibet and about to forsake his Legends of the Fall golden fringe once and for all (well, it would make a comeback in Troy, kind of). Ant is on towering form. Forlani was a next big thing. Everyone is going great guns, more or less. But the movie cost a fortune, and it only did so-so business (it tanked in the US, mitigated somewhat by international). Undeterred, Brest went on and made Gigli. And hasn’t made a movie since. Perhaps two stings back to back proved fatal to his sense of pride. He should be pleased with this picture, though. Hollywood rarely treats the spiritual with more than facile disregard, but Meet Joe Black, by lingering on the mood and moments more than hollow verbiage, provides moderate nourishment.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.