1998’s Meet Joe Black is not everyone’s cup of tea. A polarising feature, it underperformed at the box office, earning mixed reviews before ultimately fading into obscurity. Some may call the film plodding due to its three-hour length, while others might find it hokey or cliché, but, in the eyes of this reviewer, the experience of Meet Joe Black is enrapturing. Directed by Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop), the movie is fundamentally a remake of 1934’s Death Takes a Holiday, using the basic premise as a jumping off point to create a captivating romantic drama with thematic undercurrents relating to mankind’s mortality. It’s a carefully-designed motion picture that requires patience and tolerance, but it’s also rewarding, making for grand entertainment for those in the right mood.
A successful corporate tycoon and multi-millionaire, William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is only a few days away from celebrating his 65th birthday. Already anxious due to his advanced age and all of his work-related responsibilities, Bill is further troubled by occasional chest pains, accompanied by a mysterious voice inside his head. Before long, Bill is visited by the Grim Reaper, adopting the name Joe Black (Brad Pitt), personified in the body of a recently-deceased young man. Informing Bill that he’s dying, Death explains that he wants to tour the world as a mortal human, and wishes for Bill to be his tour guide. As long as the Grim Reaper stays interested on his “holiday,” Bill will be able to continue living, but Death will take Bill with him when he returns to the “next place.” During his self-appointed vacation, Death learns valuable lessons about humanity, in addition to learning about love as he develops strong feelings for Bill’s daughter Susan (Claire Forlani).
Without a doubt, death is the greatest sadness faced by humanity, as every single one of us is going to die one day. Meet Joe Black explores the question of what one would do if you knew that your life has come to an end. Bill begins to contemplate what means the most to him in life, scheduling family dinners on a daily basis, tying up loose ends, and generally soaking up the time that he has left. Even though the picture clocks in at around three hours, it earns its extensive length, spending adequate time on character development and giving the various narrative threads the breadth they required. We get to know all of the characters honestly and authenticity, and become invested in their subplots. The screenplay has received criticism for the ostensibly inconsistent treatment of the Grim Reaper, as he often seems childlike and awkward, but at other times he’s strangely knowledgeable about certain things. However, the fact that Death is an enigma is one of the most interesting aspects of the movie. What if his childlike demeanour is an act to keep Bill on his toes? What if he’s only picked up tiny bits and pieces during his existence? We do not need to get into Death’s head and know what makes him tick – we are experiencing the oddity of seeing a human Death alongside the characters, and Brest does not give viewers additional information.
Despite its spiritual and supernatural trappings, Meet Joe Black is imbued with a fairy-tale quality, as well as a dose of poetic humanism. Although the $90 million budget is absurd for a drama of this ilk, Brest’s construction of the film is magnificent, shooting with purpose a maintaining a steady pace throughout. There’s immense visual allure to Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, making wise use of the grand set design, while the editors were unafraid to hold onto shots of characters as their expressions say a thousand words. Some may find the movie plodding, but there’s a brilliant rhythm to the picture. Perhaps the definitive touch is Thomas Newman’s score, which is breathtaking and extraordinarily well-judged. It adds another layer to the fine movie, amplifying the intended feel of practically every scene without being too intrusive. It’s some of Newman’s finest work. Miraculously, Meet Joe Black at no point feels overly corny or saccharine. Some may scoff at the seriousness with which Brest approaches the material, but this reviewer gets lost in the sincerity of the enterprise. There is also some wry humour throughout, which prevents the film from becoming a dour experience.
Anthony Hopkins, it would seem, is incapable of delivering a dud performance. This role affords Hopkins a number of scenes in which he can convey the humanity and reflection of a man who has lived a great life, but is forced to come to terms with the fact that it’s drawing to a close. Hopkins is strong-willed as William Parrish; he’s somewhat comical at times, while intimidating and chilling at other times. Above all else, Hopkins turns Bill into a warm and wise father, making the character wholly believable. Brad Pitt is also enormously effective as Death, playing the role with admirable conviction. His demeanour is beautifully understated, naïve and unique, and he conveys Death’s arc as he grows to learn what it means to be human. Meanwhile Claire Forlani is engaging and beguiling as Bill’s daughter Susan, while top-shelf support is provided by Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor. Tambor is especially good, as he’s highly amusing.
I cannot help but sing praise for Meet Joe Black, which reimagines Death Takes a Holiday in a fresh, grand fashion. I love the lingering scenes, the deliberate pacing, the fullness of the narrative, and the way that the characters are richly developed, making this a movie that I frequently watch. While it may have been superior with a tauter screenplay, the movie in its current form is simply sublime. It’s not for everyone, but what movie is? It’s a beautiful experience for those willing to give themselves over to its meditations on life, love and loss, and it’s full of majesty, wisdom, and old-fashioned storytelling. Long but curiously never boring, and spiritual but never soggy, this is a brand of cinematic entertainment that Hollywood rarely gets right.