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'Meet Joe Black': One Long, Slow Death

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 1998

  Movie Critic

Meet Joe Black
Death takes a holiday and a girlfriend: Claire Forlani and Brad Pitt in "Meet Joe Black." (Universal City)

Martin Brest
Brad Pitt;
Anthony Hopkins;
Claire Forlani;
Marcia Gay Harden;
Jeffrey Tambor;
Jake Weber
Running Time:
3 hours
For a car accident, a discreet lovemaking scene and a bit of profanity
Death be not proud, death be right stupid.

"Meet Joe Black," with Brad Pitt, is a near-death experience: Time seems to stop as we stiffen in our seats and the actors all whisper as if they're at a wake.

Director Martin Brest obviously embraced that old saw – death is nature's way of telling us to slow down – in making this funereally paced fantasy about love, loss and peanut butter.

Inspired by the 79-minute chestnut "Death Takes a Holiday," this overstuffed, if beautifully mounted, version now plods along for three monotonous hours.

The two films share the same premise. Death, who assumes human form to spend some time among the living, unintentionally falls passionately in love. But this time it takes twice as long to tell, given the bloated script, Brest's self-indulgence and the cast's halting delivery. Questions go begging, pleas go unanswered, and retorts hang in the air like a bad smell. It's as if the actors had three hours to fill, but only two hours of script, so everybody had to talk . . . real . . . slow . . . leaving us plenty of time to ponder the set decoration (Is that Rothko genuine?) and the stars' imperfections. (Is that a pimple on love interest Claire Forlani's nose? Is Brad Pitt wearing mascara?) The bladder-impaired will be relieved to learn there's enough time between lines for both a pit stop and a refill at the concession stand.

Though the new picture is an improvement over the fusty original, its blithe spirit is not as effective as the 1934 film's ghostly, Gothic tone. Nor is Pitt as Joe Black as well cast as Fredric March, who played Death with Dracula-like flair. Pitt gives the almighty and powerful Lord of the Underworld the trusting, childlike demeanor of Forrest Gump and the blinding beauty of an archangel. Pitt's also comically awkward when he first takes over the body of a dashing young lawyer moments after he dies in a car accident. In this guise, he approaches William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a dying New York tycoon, with a brief stay of execution in exchange for showing him around.

Parrish, the story's true focus, agrees to the arrangement, and from that moment, Joe Black is on him like lichen on a tombstone. He moves into his palatial estate, joins extended-family meals and invites himself to Parrish's board meetings. Parrish remains a gracious host, content to wrestle with his impending departure until Joe begins to fall for peanut butter and Parrish's favorite daughter (Forlani) begins to make hay with the Grim Reaper.

Hopkins brings his customary class and strength to what is really a shallow nice guy's role and Forlani is appealing, if a bit misty-eyed, as the woman who flirts with Death. Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor lend solid support as Parrish's under-appreciated daughter and his earnest schlub of a son-in-law.

Ostensibly, Death dropped in on the Parrish clan to learn what it is about life that makes people cling to it so. Certainly, he found answers within the family's refined and opulent community. But wouldn't the lesson have been more meaningful if Joe had visited with a family struggling to make do, but who shares its peanut butter anyway?

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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