Saturday, September 26, 2015

Zaki's Original Review: Meet Joe Black

 First published: November 20, 1998

Before Titanic, the idea of a three hour love story would've been laughed out of every pitch session in Hollywood. Then along came the Ship That Cameron Built, and studio heads realized there was a vast audience of pubescent girls ready to eat up scene after scene of gorgeous people making goo-goo eyes at each other and getting it on. Enter Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black.

What I find interesting is that 1934's Death Takes a Holiday, the inspiration for Joe Black, barely clocks in under 80 minutes. Of course, the original didn't have Brad Pitt. Or Claire Forlani. Or, for that matter, the promise of Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani "doing it." However, if it's the movie's love story aspect that makes it the most marketable, it's this same angle that bogs it down and keeps it from becoming something more.

Anthony Hopkins plays millionaire tycoon Bill Parrish, haunted of late by mysterious voices. Death, he soon learns, is coming for him. And it turns out he looks remarkably like Brad Pitt. Wishing to learn more about this thing we call life, the Reaper has taken the body of a recently deceased young man (Pitt), and chosen Hopkins as his guide. In exchange, Death agrees to delay the millionaire's own impending demise.

The heavy breathing kicks into high gear when Death, adopting the all-purpose monicker of Joe Black, is introduced to Parrish's daughter Susan (the always luminous Forlani). Lots of puppy dog eyes and lingering smooches ensue. Pitt, forever saddled with People magazine's dubious distinction of "Sexiest Man Alive" a few years back, has been trying for some time now to prove that he is more than a pretty face. His Oscar nominated turn in 12 Monkeys speaks volumes about the young actor's abilities.

Still, he seems unsure how exactly to play Joe Black.  His reactions to everyday situations (like an acquired taste for peanut butter) are somewhat endearing, but he never comes across as anything more than a variation on Starman actor Jeff Bridges.  Pitt's Death only really comes, well, alive in his interactions with Hopkins. He evinces a wry, ironic streak that suits the character perfectly.  As Parrish grows visibly angered over his fate, Black icily comments, "Calm down, Bill. You'll give yourself a heart attack, and ruin my vacation." It's droll, but it works.

Meet Joe Black marks the latest in a succession of strong turns by Anthony Hopkins. More than even Pitt, the film serves as a showcase for the versatile and talented Oscar winner. With its hefty running time, Joe Black almost fails to justify its length. But, despite a somewhat forced ending that almost undermines the movie's initial impact, it's saved by Hopkins' bravura turn.  Still, there is a prurient charm in watching Pitt and Forlani act out their scenes together. Soppy love story or not, I can think of worse people to watch getting it on. B

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