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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.


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