Meet Joe Black (1998)

Directed by Martin Brest

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Death is quite sultry and naive in Meet Joe Black, perhaps the most unlikely three hour movie of all time.

Brad Pitt plays a young, frosted tip’d enthusiastic man in a coffee shop who lights on fire the world of Susan Parrish (Claire Forlani).  Then he gets hit by a car and turns into the personification of death, an entity which has come to escort Claire’s father William (Anthony Hopkins) to the grave.  It seems death’s new body is entirely a coincidence, though if it’s only because the coffee shop man was the last one to die, well you’d think there would be someone else to die closer to when Death decided he needed a flesh and blood vehicle to show him around the city.

Death is quite innocent, like a child experiencing everything in life for the first time.  He wishes to follow William around, and they work out an agreement that so long as William doesn’t tell anyone who “Joe Black” really is, then he’ll let William take his time before they have to go.  Joe Black, it seems, is quite enamored with this world and wants to see what it’s all about.

His journey will be like that of the ponytailed angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987).  They were silent, invisible observers of the world around them, but one of them decided he had to experience what this whole human condition thing was all about.  Despite the suffering and certainly because of the occasional joy (through he mostly witnesses suffering), this angel decides to turn himself into a human.

So that’s what Death does, and wouldn’t you know it he falls in love with Susan Parrish.  It’s a strange romance, with her falling for a shadow of the man she fell for at the coffee shop.  It’s unclear to me why there was any spark there since Joe Black seemed to be such a wet blanket.

Their romance is thus very one-sided, with all the focus on him and his new experiences.  This is what it feels like, in other words, to be human, or to be Brad Pitt at least.

There’s another subplot concerning William Parrish’s legacy.  He’s the head of a large company, and his future son-in-law, Drew (Jake Weber), who eventually becomes not his future son-in-law when Susan dumps him, loses his mind when William goes against his wishes on a merger with another company that could make them all rich.  Drew accuses Joe Black of putting bad ideas into William’s head and makes a plan to take them both down.

That side of the movie feels somewhat predictable, even if Drew does make for an effective, slimy villain, and the fact that he is the villain in a movie with Death personified is quite something.

The best parts of this movie have to deal with Death learning about the world, about one woman’s fascination with a man she knows to be not quite human and about an old, dying man reckoning with his legacy.  None of it is revolutionary in premise or execution, but there is at least some consideration given to such topics (there better be, what with the 3 hour running time and all).  It’s when the movie turns fairly predictable and then draws out the conclusion with a half a dozen endings that Meet Joe Black really began to wear on me in a bad way.

This is a fine movie, a strange one to be sure, but something of a spectacle.  There are a series of good actors, and the premise is just so odd.  Brad Pitt’s death is a weird little character whose innocence feels wrong, if only because you’d think he’d have ventured out into the world a long time ago.

Or look at it like this: In Groundhog Day the question is posed that Bill Murray’s character Phil, who repeats the same day over and over again for somewhere between 10 and 40 years, could be a God.  He certainly thinks so, considering he can’t seem to die (he’s tried).  The suggestion, a poignant one I think, is that God only feels godly because he’s someone who’s been around long enough to see exactly how everything works.  Phil is a curmudgeon who’s forced to observe the world and people around him until he can anticipate every action of the day.

In Meet Joe Black the titular character is a God-like entity, and yet everything’s brand new to him.  For a concept that has been around since the beginning of time, you’d think Death would have a better sense of what’s going on.  But he… just doesn’t.  His innocence is so prominent that you have to assume there are higher forces at work, like he’s the spoiled son of the real Death who has been sent out on a trip to get acquainted with life before he takes over the ‘death mantle.’

Up Next: Ponyo (2008), Das Boot (1981), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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