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The Long Goodbye

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
If you take a meeting with "Joe Black," make sure you take a cup of joe, black-because at three hours long, this leisurely paced movie could use a caffeine buzz.

It's not that it's unnecessarily sluggish throughout. The slowness, by and large, is appropriate to the mood of the serio-comic drama about life, love and death. The final, protracted half hour, however, is excessive, as screenwriters Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade and Bo Goldman flail about in search of a conclusion that will justify the enormous commitment of time.

In significant ways, they do not succeed, and much of director Martin Brest's so far firm rein on the proceedings is dissipated in a squishy denouement whose payoff does not fulfill the film's grand promise. The blandly named Joe of the title is anything but average. For one thing, as embodied by Brad Pitt, he's a hunka-hunka burning love and muscly man-flesh smoldering under a tousled mop of streaky blond hair. For another thing, he's Death incarnate.

When Joe shows up on the doorstep of wealthy businessman Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), it is to carry his host off to The Other Side. Bill, about to turn 65, has been having chest pains and hearing voices lately, hissing the word "yes"-in answer to the as yet unasked question "Am I dying?"

Death doesn't normally show up in an Italian suit and hair gel, but before Mr. D carries out his assignment, he wants to learn a little bit about the living, and who better to be his tour guide than the goody-two-shoes millionaire, chosen, according to Joe, for his "verve, excellence and ability to instruct." The body that the grim reaper has borrowed just happens to belong to a poor schmo who was killed that morning, coincidentally after spending breakfast in a coffee shop flirting with Bill's pretty doctor daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani). Imagine Susan's surprise when she sits down to dinner and sees the mysterious stranger again, looking no worse for wear, considering the fact that he has recently been run over by a truck.

Although she doesn't know that, Joe still doesn't seem like the charmer she met earlier, coming off as a little stiff. (That's understandable, you see, because he is a stiff.) Soon, the two have fallen in love, much to the chagrin of Daddy, who is the only one who knows about her dream date's eschatological undesirability. There's a subplot involving a corporate coup-intended to reveal Bill's sterling character-but it for the most part it merely adds to the film's excessive length.

Forlani, whose downcast eyes often look as if she is avoiding the glare of oncoming headlights, has a vulnerability that works in the role of the novice romantic. Even Pitt, who is not asked to do much more here than behave alternately like a robot, a bashful boy and a moron, fulfills his modest tasks with aplomb. When he has to act, though, he fares less well. His Death-sheds-a-tear scene feels bogus, and when he affects the embarrassing facial contortions of someone experiencing sexual climax for the first time, he looks for all the world like a man searching for car keys. He's no Laurence Olivier.

Heck, he's no Anthony Hopkins either. As a man literally faced with his own demise, Hopkins powerfully evokes the denial, anger and resignation that everyone goes through. "Meet Joe Black" is Hopkins's movie and, despite the film's unnecessary length, his quiet and dignified performance almost carries the ball across the finish line.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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