This is the fourth in a series of posts spotlighting the overlooked, underappreciated, and unfairly maligned movies of our time. Other films given the “In Defense Of” treatment include The Next Three Days, Multiplicity, and Speed Racer.
First things first: I’m a sucker for movies in which the main character knows that life as he/she know it is over, and has a finite amount of time to set things right before they go. Plenty of films have tackled this plot device with varying degrees of success. But one of the best, and most misunderstood, of them all has to be Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black.
A loose remake of Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black was released back in November 1998 to critical befuddlement and lackluster box office. The knocks against it are fairly predictable by now: it’s too long. Brad Pitt gives a wooden performance. The idea of Death having sex with a human is just plain icky. The characters are too wealthy to care about. The production design is suffocatingly extravagant.
All are legitimate points. Pitt himself has said in interviews that his performance in Meet Joe Black is one of his least favorites. I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Pitt – I thought you were great here. In fact, all of those so-called knocks above ring hollow when actually watching the film and letting its majestic qualities wash over you.
Director Brest is no slouch. He made Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman – three of the best movies of the last three decades. Sure, he stumbled hard with Gigli, and many would point to Meet Joe Black as the tipping point of his decline, but they’d be wrong.
Yes, Meet Joe Black is frickin’ long. It has a running time of over three hours. You should know that going in – plan your night around watching it. But it’s worth it. This is an epic drama dealing with important themes of life and death, that makes time for romance, comedy, corporate thrills, and heavy human drama. It is a full-bodied entertainment that asks viewers to invest their time and energy in the characters and their predicaments, and pays off in richly rewarding emotional dividends.
The great Anthony Hopkins stars as William Parrish, a loving father and respected mogul. On the eve of his 65th birthday (seems so young doesn’t it?), he is greeted by Death – taking the form of a man’s body (Brad Pitt). Parrish and Death reach an agreement: Parrish will get an extra three days to live in exchange for serving as a guide to Death and showing him all that living human has to offer. Little does Parrish know that part of the lesson will include Death falling for Parrish’s younger daughter (Claire Forlani).
Hopkins is given a wonderful character arc in the film. There are so many emotional twists and turns, ups and downs to William Parrish. Reluctant, resigned, outraged, disgusted, peaceful, accepting – Hopkins nails them all. While Hopkins has a broad range of emotions to display, Pitt keeps his character firmly in check. His Death is fairly stiff for most of the movie, which makes sense given that Death is using a body that even isn’t his. Pitt does, however, bring out much of the fish-out-of-water comedy that the role has to offer. He’s very funny in this. Most importantly, he has great chemistry with Hopkins.
A couple of things must be mentioned. There is that out-of-nowhere, truly shocking car accident at the beginning of the movie. Pitt – playing a man in a coffee shop whose body Death will later take over – meets cute with Forlani’s character and as they leave on their separate ways and trade wistful glances at each other as the music swells, the sweet mood is rudely interrupted when Pitt is hit by one car, flies up in the air, is hit by another car going the opposite direction and then flops to the ground. I nearly peed my pants seeing this scene in the theater – it’s sudden, powerful, and totally unexpected. Awesome.
The 65th birthday party that closes that film, as all the loose ends are tied up, is a triumph of production design. Grandly executed and elaborately ornate, it is truly a party worthy of one’s dreams. When the fireworks eventually start lighting up the sky, you feel yourself transported to another world. Few scenes in movies have captured the beauty of life as well as this one. It is both uplifting and depressing because you don’t want to see Parrish have to leave this world.
There are some great scenes of corporate intrigue, featuring a very slimy, detestable Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead, Medium). Pitt’s Death wrecks havoc in the boardroom, and it’s a joy to watch these corporate weasels squirm, no more so than in the climactic showdown where the phrase “death and taxes” gets used to perfect, maximum crowd-pleasing effect.
The music is fantastic. Thomas Newman’s score is hypnotic and lovely, and the soundtrack gets bonus points for being the first to use the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version of “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” that so many other TV shows and movies have since used.
So forget about all those naysayers. Grab a glass of wine, set aside the remainder of your evening, and give this movie a chance. Life is a delicate, beautiful thing. Meet Joe Black visually depicts that message to pitch-perfect effect.