Meet Joe Black [DVD]
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Brad Pitt (Joe Black), Anthony Hopkins (William Parrish), Clair Forlani (Susan Parrish), Jake Weber (Drew), Marcia Gay Harden (Allison), Jeffrey Tambor (Quince), David S. Howard (Eddie Sloane), Lois Kelly-Miller (Jamaican Woman)
Considering that he is one of the most charismatic and appealing cinematic heartthrobs to come along in quite a while, Brad Pitt has spent much of his career building a resume of odd characters. Already he has played has played a greasy serial killer (Kalifornia), a psychotic in a mental institution (12 Monkeys), a clueless stoner (True Romance), and a tortured vampire (Interview with the Vampire). With Meet Joe Black, he added Death personified to that growing list, with the added irony that playing this character--which is potentially his most twisted to date--marked his return to true hunkdom.
Loosely based on the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black posits the idea that Death decides he wants to tour the earthly world and experience life as a human. As his tour guide, he selects Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a billionaire New York media mogul whose soon-to-be-celebrated 65th birthday will be his last. Death approaches him in the body of a recently deceased young man (Pitt) and offers Parrish the chance to have more time on earth if he will show Death around. It would seem that a scene of this sheer ludicrousness--Brad Pitt as Death asking Anthony Hopkins for a tour of the world--would be a real howler, but director Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman) pulls it off quite nicely, making the scene both realistically convincing, yet distinctly otherworldly.
However, the same cannot be said for the entirety of the film, which runs an astoundingly long three hours. Maybe the movie runs so long because four different writers (Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, and Bo Goldman) all had a crack at the screenplay. Granted, Meet Joe Black tells a fairly involving, multi-character story that includes extended subplots about Pitt's romance with Susan, Bill's daughter (Claire Forlani), and the attempts by Bill's second-in-command at Parrish Communications, Drew (Jake Weber), to take over the company.
But still, three hours? It isn't hard to see that much of the film's length is due to Brest's overworking in the director's chair. He and his editors, Oliver Stone-veteran Joe Hutshing (The Doors, JFK) and Michael Tronick (with whom he collaborated previously on Scent of a Woman), hold many of the scenes much longer than they need to be held, and the message is clear: Brest is constantly reminding us of the inherent gravity of the film's mystical situation. The long pauses, the extended moments of silence, and the long-held shots in extreme close-up are intended, I suppose, to invoke European masters of the supernatural like Ingmar Bergman (there are even some hints of Stanley Kubrick's detailed, methodical direction). However, the problem is that Meet Joe Black is first, a sentimental romance; second, a black comedy; and, third, a meditation on life, death, and love. Brest composes it like the third aspect of the film was its dominating characteristic, and therein lies the flaw of mismatching form and content.
In the role of Death (who goes under the quickly improvised pseudonym of Joe Black), Brad Pitt appears in numerous carefully lit shots where you could swear you were looking at Robert Redford thirty years ago. Pitt smiles shyly and walks stiffly, all to convey the notion that, despite the powerful, eternal nature of Death as a character, he has no idea what it means to be human. He doesn't know how to talk to people, what to do at dinner parties, how to eat peanut butter, or how to kiss. During the course of the film, he learns to do all of these things and more, and in some ways watching what appears to be a grown man experiencing all these simple earthly pleasures for the first time is charming.
However, the screenplay often cheats with the character of Joe Black by keeping his character frustratingly inconsistent. When it's convenient for him to be naive and baffled, the screenplay puts him in that position. However, there are time when the movie wants him to display power and understanding in order to further the plot, therefore Joe Black suddenly speaks and acts in ways that earlier would have been seemingly impossible for him.
For instance, when he first appears at a dinner party at Bill's house, he barely knows how to speak or how to return simple courtesies. However, later in the film, when he meets a dying Jamaican woman in the hospital, he is suddenly able to converse flawlessly with her in the Jamaican dialect. Why is it that he comes to earth unable to comfortably speak simple, American English, but he can rap philosophic in Jamaican slang? And, for someone who doesn't know how to conduct himself at a board meeting, Joe seems to know an awful lot about the business world at the end of the film when he needs it to help Bill turn the tables on Drew.
As usual, Anthony Hopkins shines in his role as Bill, a man who knows he is going to die soon and is doing everything he can to make sure his life is lived out to its fullest. Give credit to the screenwriters that they didn't have him engaging in stupid behavior simply because he knows his time is short. Instead, he begins to realize the goodness of his life and to enjoy the simpler things like having dinner with his family. Also, he wants to ensure that the legacy he leaves behind--his company--is not just a profit-making machine, but something that does the world some good. Chalk up some of his speechmaking about the responsibility of reporting the news as Hollywood schmaltz, but that doesn't make what he says any less true.
In her role as Susan, Claire Forlani shows that she is an actress to keep an eye on. The last unknown actress to be sandwiched in a movie with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins was Julia Ormond in Legends of the Fall (1994), and she hasn't done too bad for herself (although she has been missing from the radar in recent years). Forlani does a fabulous job of playing Susan as a complex, fascinating woman who has yet to feel "lightning strike" in her life. Forlani is a unique cinematic beauty, and although many of her scenes require a lot of misty-eyed starring into Pitt's baby blues, she makes the most of it. Her performance is sweet and moving, especially when compared with the sometimes zombie-like movement of Pitt's Joe Black.
Overall, Meet Joe Black is an strange enigma of a film. It has a bizarre plot, yet it's filmed in the utterly straightforward manner of a drama (except for what might be the oddest scene of the year, involving the death of Pitt's character when he is hit by not one but two cars--the scene so sudden and so violent and so crazy, that it plays like a pratfall and the entire theater broke into laughter for nearly a full minute when it happened). At the same time, a great deal of the film is syrupy romance punctuated with swelling music that works a little too hard. But, on the other hand, much of it is a witty black comedy with some great ironic moments and hilarious one-liners. And, in-between all that, there are some completely Hollywoodized, but nevertheless thought-provoking, scenes about the essential nature of life and what it's worth. With a movie that includes all that in a never-completely comfortable mix, maybe it's not so surprising after all that it runs three hours.
|Meet Joe Black: Ultimate Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
|Languages||English (DD 5.1, DTS 5.1) |
French (DD 5.1)
|Supplements|| Death Takes a Holiday feature film|
Spotlight on Location 10-minute making-of featurette
Original theatrical trailer
Cast & Filmmaker biographies
|Love it or hate it, it is hard to deny that Meet Joe Black is a beautifully photographed film, and the anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc does it justice. Much of the film is shot in vast interiors of cherry wood and marble, and the transfer features bold, deeply saturated colors that look rich and natural. Contrast is exceptionally good, showing off cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's (Sleepy Hollow) careful lighting arrangements (just look at how gorgeous the opening shot is). The transfer is clean throughout, although there is a bit of noticeable edge enhancement from time to time.|
|This disc features both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround soundtracks, both of which are effective, but not overbearing. Most of Meet Joe Black is dialogue-driven, with many long pauses and heavy silences that rely more on the soundtrack's clarity than on its surround effects. Thomas Newman's musical score sounds very good throughout, and surround effects are well utilized from time to time, such as during the opening scenes when Parrish first hears a disembodied voice in his head and during the climax with thundering fireworks.|
| Unlike Universal's other "Ultimate Edition" releases, Meet Joe Black is not nearly as supplement-packed. The biggest addition to this disc over the previously released version is the inclusion of the feature-length 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, on which Meet Joe Black was based. I couldn't help but feel somewhat uncomfortable that an entire movie was being treated as a mere supplement to another movie, and it makes one wish that this two-disc set had been packaged as a double-feature to show a little more respect to the original film. Still, it is nice to have Death Takes a Holiday available on DVD, especially in a notably good transfer for a film that is close to 70 years old. The film is generally sharp and clear, although there are some definite signs of age from time to time in the form of scratches, nicks, and dirt. Overall, though, it looks very good, with fine detail and nice contrast in the black-and-white imagery. |
Other supplements on the disc include a 10-minute Spotlight on Location featurette about the making of Meet Joe Black, which features interviews with director Martin Brest and actors Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, and Brad Pitt (who, judging by his appearance, was obviously in the middle of filming Fight Club when he was interviewed). Also included is a photo montage, the original theatrical trailer (which, despite being somewhat misleading as to the nature of the film, is a great piece of work in and of itself), and the standard production notes and cast and filmmaker biographies. DVD-ROM content includes script-to-screen comparisons and an archive of the Meet Joe Black web site.
Copyright © 1998, 2001 James Kendrick