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.


Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the