Exiting an advance screening of Meet Joe Black, I filed into an elevator with others who had just spent a punishing three hours watching Brad Pitt act like Death. Pitt’s Joe Black is really the Grim Reaper in temporary possession of the body of a blond Adonis; he wants to learn what the big deal is about being alive. After slogging through scenes of Joe matching wits with Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), the tycoon he has come to dispatch with a heart attack on Bill’s sixty-fifth birthday, and then falling in love with Susan (Claire Forlani), Bill’s pretty but vacuous doctor daughter, we unhappy few in the elevator looked like the walking dead ourselves. One groggy observer raised his bleary eyes and said to no one in particular, “Fucking long.”
Fucking right. Meet Joe Black is a movie about death that stubbornly refuses to come to life. Is it bad? Indisputably. Is it lazy hack work? Hell, no. Director Martin Brest is too ambitious for that. The former New York University film student works infrequently, having made only five movies in two decades. But even Brest’s comedies have a thing for black. Going in Style (1979), his first studio film, features three near-death retirees, played by George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg, who rob a bank.
“What film student’s first movie is about octogenarians?” asks Bo Goldman, who co-wrote the screenplay for Meet Joe Black with Kevin Wade, Ron Osborne and Jeff Reno. Goldman knows the answer: “Marty is obsessed with death.” Issues of mortality invade Brest’s films — even the glossy Beverly Hills Cop (1984), in which Eddie Murphy is haunted by the murder of his best friend. In Midnight Run (1988), Brest’s finest film, Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin flee the mob. In the overrated Scent of a Woman (1992), Al Pacino won an Oscar for his “Hoo-ha!” hamboning as a blind, alcoholic Army colonel who taunts death with his suicidal acts.
In Meet Joe Black, only Bill faces Death head-on, since the other major characters don’t know who Joe is. The film has been vaunted as a romance, much like the 1934 Fredric March film Death Takes a Holiday, which inspired this update. But Brest is more concerned with Joe’s feelings about Bill, the publishing genius who holds integrity above financial gain. (Bill, it should be unnecessary to point out, bears no resemblance to any real person, living or dead.) Joe comes to admire Bill as the old man battles corporate sharks to keep control of his company.
Hopkins, in the only fully imagined role, is outstanding when widower Bill recalls his first meeting with his adored wife, down to the collar on her blouse — a rare instance when Brest gets the details right. With Susan and Joe, fireworks explode and Thomas Newman’s score swells, but the emotion feels unearned.
The movie saddles good actors — Marcia Gay Harden, as Bill’s neglected older daughter, and Jeffrey Tambor, as her sweet screw-up husband — with one-dimensional roles. And Pitt barely gets that. Joe is a literary conceit as hard to flesh out as the ghost child in Beloved. Pitt’s Joe talks softly, like a mute who has just gained the gift of speech. Death is testing the human capacity for joy on everything from peanut butter to first-ever sex. What the role needs is the sly whimsy of Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon and the soulful longing of Nicolas Cage in City of Angels. What it gets is Pitt trapped as a passive bystander — allowed only a few cracks about death and taxes; talkin’ Jamaican, man, to a dying woman who spots him for a spook; and eating that damned sticky peanut butter.
The peanut butter is about the only thing in Meet Joe Black that does stick. A reported $90 million budget has been freely lavished to show the rich enjoying their privileges in a Newport, Rhode Island, mansion by the sea and a Manhattan triplex with a penthouse pool. But deluxe trappings can’t disguise a hollow core. On Bill’s birthday night, Susan gushes at model-chic Joe, “I’d like to undress you right here on the dance floor.” Why bother, honey? There’s nothing underneath.