Doing It to Death
Meet Joe Black
Early in the 1934 comedy/melodrama Death Takes a Holiday, a young woman calls out from a touring car zipping along a cliffside road: "Let's go fast enough to reach the illimitable!" She is the movie's most innocent and vulnerable character, and she has no clue that she's about to meet the final limit, Death himself, who is played with courtly Old World charm by Frederic March.
Audiences at the mercy of Meet Joe Black--which is scantily based on either that movie or the European play that was its source--may also wonder if they're in the face of "the illimitable." Over nearly three hours, as director Martin Brest and his four screenwriters introduce themes of wealth, privilege, control, and doubt, scenes stretch out and kisses almost happen and Brad Pitt's Death learns to love peanut butter. And the sense that Brest was hoping to create something exquisite and rare, a kind of sostenuto meditation on the meaning of life (no kidding), takes pathetic hold. The problem is not that Brest wants to do this, but that he doesn't realize how few others may wish to experience an elegy to goodness in life and humility in death.
Which reminds me: Could we please impose a term limit on movies that deal with death like it's some high-fashion romance, expecting us to suspend our own genuine pains and fears while screen-time itself stretches to the limits? As Meet Joe Black explores the intimate emotional nuances of a tycoon (Anthony Hopkins) and his "arrangement" with Death (Pitt), who's exploring mortality, it merely makes the most recent twist on a prevailing fiction: that giving up the ghost is some kind of adventure centered on the self--the ultimate form of tourism, the last great trip. Instead of Rollerblading to an obscure Mayan temple, let's dance the waltz with the Grim Reaper himself! Brest's movie, however, explores one niche of morbidity that these other afterlife epics haven't considered: It allows us to see Death squirm, to comprehend (briefly) what he's taking us away from.
I really have no argument with this idea, and I have no problem with the way Hopkins plays Bill Parrish, a kind of Ted Turner with a softer heart. In fact, I'm not even bothered all that much by what Brad Pitt is doing with the character of Joe Black. He's a fish out of water, an entity in human form, and, in that, his body language and speech seem appropriate and occasionally even interesting. He's full of contrasts: He has no social graces, he can reel off a sentence that includes "suborn," "imprimatur," and even "Machiavellian" in a single breath, and he can speak Jamaican patois in a heartbeat. He can be as compelling to watch as Peter Sellers in Being There or Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. (But he's not quite David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.)
The problem is that, dammit, he's also Brad Pitt, and he's stretching his skills to play not a randy stud but a passive boy toy for at least half the running time. So when he draws the eye of Bill Parrish's daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) but doesn't have a clue as to what to do with her interest, he's like a gooey inflatable date. You can kiss him here or kiss him there. You can undress him and guide him every inch of the way. On the other hand, he is Death and you're doing the nasty with him. I wish more people had seen that long-ago Twilight Zone episode in which a Pitt-like Robert Redford as Death shows up to take an old woman away; that dramatization got to the point more quickly about the sour candy filling of a sweet attraction, and dealt more straightforwardly with the possibility of Death being "romantic" in a literary sense.
Meet Joe Black is gorgeous to look at, with some of the best interior lighting I've ever seen, and sets full of rare paintings and rich woods. It's also, reportedly, the most expensive love story ever filmed. Budget shouldn't really distract us--but there you are. At least we have Anthony Hopkins using the full range of his voice to bring empathy to an otherwise stock character. He and others engage in one hushed, intimate conversation after the next, most of them having to do with finding oneself and trusting in another. Joe's eventual infatuation with Susan is only one story; there's also the hostile takeover of Joe's company, a subplot that ought to reveal his competitive spirit but is actually of interest only to subscribers of Business Week.
Where Meet Joe Black really fails its audience is where it joins What Dreams May Come--and Ghost or even Ghost Dad, if you want to get crude: It pretends that death only affects the affluent or the pretty. Presumably these people don't think about other kinds of pain; they don't have the wider definition of "death" that includes suicides, massacres, premature accidents, lingering illness, or, to get personal, the fact that my father never met my son. Apart from a sweet old Jamaican woman who recognizes Joe as an "obeah" or evil spirit (conveniently, this character is black and therefore a figure of wisdom in Hollywood's scheme), there is no one else facing what death really does to both survivor and victim.
So there's no authentic sadness at the core of the movie that can be dramatized, unless you count Susan's anguish over never boning Joe Black again. All the tenderness that fills in the margins isn't really what the movie is--or could be--about, which is that death is painful and inescapable, so we need to frame it to comprehend it. This movie just gives Death a holiday and leaves us back home, looking at a postcard.
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