Slow Death

The Grim Reaper mingles with a toothsome millionaire in the ponderous 'Meet Joe Black.' Reviewed by Laura Miller.

By Laura Miller
Published November 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Some roles, notoriously, are murder. Actors hate to play opposite small children or animals, and "Macbeth" -- which some superstitious theater people will refer to only as "the Scottish play" -- is considered bad luck. To this roster, I'd add the part of Death, specifically the Grim Reaper as he appears in the 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday" and the new Martin Brest remake, "Meet Joe Black." It's not that the character is unplayable -- although Frederic March, tricked out like an operetta princeling, hammed it up excruciatingly in the original "classic." Rather, it seems to be unwriteable and undirectable. The high-concept premise of Death taking a long weekend off to mingle with us mortals brings out the worst in filmmakers.

In this version, Anthony Hopkins plays a media mogul named William Parrish (and apparently modeled on William Paley) who feels the first tremors of impending mortality in his left arm. He hears a spooky voice, and suddenly there's Brad Pitt, standing in his library, explaining, "I have a certain function to perform. Sometimes I speculate that I haven't left room for more." The idea of Death complaining like an overworked CEO is moderately amusing, and there are more glimmers of humor in Brest's glossy, wood-paneled version of this tale than in the original film (which was based on a pretentious stage play). Offering Parrish a handful of extra days in exchange for a tour of earthly life, Death (going under the name Joe Black) accompanies the older man to family dinners and meetings. Pitt plays him as a serenely polite foreigner, unacquainted with basic table manners and figures of speech.

Parrish has two daughters -- Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), the eldest, who's frantically organizing an extravagant 65th birthday party for her father, and Susan (Clair Forlani), his pet, a physician who briefly meets and flirts with the country lawyer whose body Death hijacks for his little jaunt. Smitten with the human guy, Susan begins to fall for his metaphysical doppelgdnger as well, and Joe returns the sentiment. Meanwhile, Susan's boyfriend (the marvelously, subtly conniving Jake Weber) is trying to wrest control of Parrish's company away from the old man so he can sell it to a Murdoch-like arriviste and make a bundle for himself.

While angels, ghosts, the afterlife and even the devil have appeared in dozens of charming (if often sentimental) movies, poor old Charon can't seem to get a break. More than any other personification, Death brings out the pompous streak in writers and directors. "Meet Joe Black" is handsome, but terribly ponderous, an hour too long at least and surprisingly inert to the frisson of its premise. Its sprinkling of jokes feels like tiny, valiant sparks flashing in the vast somber marsh of its nearly three-hour length, and some of the nicer touches from the equally lugubrious 1934 film (the way that everyone on earth survives terrible accidents and wars during Death's holiday) have been cut.

The actors in "Meet Joe Black" are blameless, for the most part. Pitt acquits himself pretty well considering he's playing a person with an unfathomably inhuman inner life, and his weirdly clueless aplomb in the earlier parts of the film is fun to watch. Forlani isn't called upon to do much more than tremble with gazellelike vulnerability (which makes her utterly unconvincing as an urban doctor), but she has a sweet smile and a beautiful face. Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Quince, Allison's decent schlub of a husband, gives the film its only truly affecting performance, mostly because his is the only well-written part.

That leaves the ill-served Hopkins, who after all must carry off almost as much as Pitt. Death picks Parrish as his guide because, he says, "You've lived a first-rate life." To which the philosophically inclined viewer will likely respond: Huh? What exactly makes this life, of all lives, "first-rate"? Parrish loved his late wife and loves his children and -- we're assured rather than shown -- conducted his work with integrity. But most of all, he's very, very, very rich and powerful. He has a triplex penthouse with a swimming pool overlooking the Manhattan skyline and a seaside manor he reaches by personal helicopter -- both hung with priceless abstract expressionist paintings. This, I gather, boosts his life's rating above, say, the Buddha's, or Shakespeare's, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s. What's more disheartening than the film's faint whiff of morbidity is its notion that Death has no higher or more discriminating notion of a "first-rate life" than Robin Leach, that even the Pale Rider is captivated by champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

Beyond all that, Parrish just isn't very likable, despite Allison's assertion that "everyone who's ever met you loves you." He responds to most crises by barking orders; he's remote and imperious. In a particularly glaring scene, the devoted Quince makes a big, difficult confession to Parrish, who, leafing through papers, doesn't even bother to look at the man, even though this is probably their last conversation. The best he can show Joe of the human experience is a couple of board-of-directors meetings and a lamb sandwich ("not as chewy as roast beef, but not as boring as turkey. My wife knew things like that").

The most frustrating thing about Parrish, though, is his utter lack of curiosity and wonder. If you had a few days to hang out with the Grim Reaper, wouldn't you have at least a question or two? Wouldn't you want to ask if anyone's ever come back, or what, if anything, waits on the other side -- only the questions that have haunted and fascinated humankind from time immemorial? (Nah, let's just have another lamb sandwich!) And this guy is supposed to be a journalist? Furthermore, if you were Susan and falling in love with the odd fellow your dad kept bringing to the family dinner table, wouldn't it just kinda cross your mind to ask him what he did for a living, where he was from, basic cocktail party small talk, before launching a full-scale seduction campaign? If, once you were madly and totally in love with this cipher and your father thundered, "Joe's no good for you!" in your face without offering you any reason, would you (after trembling with gazellelike vulnerability) answer demurely, "Of course not, Daddy. I'm sorry"?

The zest-free, |ber-WASP stateliness of the Parrish household hardly seems like the right atmosphere in which to savor life at its richest. The filmmakers make this milieu feel like a museum exhibit about experience, rather than experience itself. (Alas, as "Meet Joe Black" finally launches into the gamut of tear-jerking, I-want-you-to-know-I-love-you scenes that inevitably lurk at the end of this kind of movie, Brest's policy of muted tastefulness breaks down.) Eventually, of course, Parrish must face his destiny and leave the world of the living, but somehow it's hard to imagine that crossing over will feel like that big of a change.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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