Courtesy Photo
*1/2 178 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, November 13, 1998
Directed by Martin Brest

Starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden & Jeffrey Tambor


There's a grandure to this picture that will be lost on video, but without a full theater screen to fill, Brad Pitt's sleepwalking peformance might perk up a little bit...a very little bit.

Pitt-iful performance, inconsistencies haunt supernatural romance

By Rob Blackwelder

One of the first scenes in "Meet Joe Black" is so perfectly simple and romantic that I relaxed into my theater seat smiling because I just knew I was in for a sweet and delicious chick flick. I admit it -- I am a sucker for a good romance.

The scene finds Susan Parrish, a beautiful, intelligent doctor played by Claire Forlani ("Basquiat," "The Rock"), meeting a handsome, charming young lawyer (Brad Pitt) in a New York coffee shop. Instantly there are sparks, and although they never even get each other's names, it feels like love.

Director Martin Brest keeps this episode simple -- no music, little editing -- letting the overwhelming chemistry between his stars do all the work. By the end of this scene, I was completely absorbed.

Then Pitt leaves the coffee shop and gets violently clobbered by two passing cars, positively ruining the rest of the movie.

Pitt comes back, of course, playing Death. The Grim Reaper has borrowed the charming dead lawyer's body for a little corporeal R and R -- but not his personality. As played by Pitt, Death is a witless dullard.

Unaccustomed to a physical form he moves mechanically, like Al Gore the day after a marathon, and that gleam in his eyes that made the coffee shop scene so appealing is gone completely. He barely talks, and when he does it's in a concise monotone. He's intrusive and unmannerly, charmless and flat. This Death about as engaging as a Brad Pitt cardboard cutout.

So suddenly instead of the cute guy in the coffee shop we got all giddy about, we have to spend almost three hours (the movie is unnecessarily long) with a guy who has nothing going for him except Brad Pitt's face.

The rest of the movie, a remake of the 1934 classic "Death Takes a Holiday," doesn't have much going for it either.

"Meet Joe Black" is supposed to be a supernatural romance, the story of Death discovering life through falling in love. But underneath its convincingly glossy surface of beautiful stars, opulent production design and glamorous photography, this movie is an inconsistent, neatly packaged mess.

Death, it seems, is on a working vacation -- he's come for the Susan's communications mogul father (Anthony Hopkins). But the two men strike a deal -- Hopkins gets to live a little longer if he'll show Death around and let Death crash at his mansion, introducing him to friends and business associates as Joe Black.

So Forlani and Pitt are reunited, but of course she has no idea why he's turned into such a insufferable prat. In fact, she finds him more than a little creepy. But because the script says so, she falls in love with him anyway, making her look like a very poor judge of character.

With Pitt in his Death persona, the chemistry they had in that coffee shop scene is gone, making it extremely hard to buy her interest. How can she love him, or indeed trust him, when 1) he's suddenly nothing like the guy she had a twinge for in that early scene, and 2) he refuses to tell her anything about himself?

Even after she's gets suspicious, she never questions him. A smart woman would have asked about his sister, who he seemed so concerned about during their cafe conversation. But that would make too much sense and poke holes in the script.

The picture busies itself with a subplot about a business merger engineered by Hopkins' nefarious lieutenant, Drew (Jake Weber), who happens to be Susan's fiance. We're supposed to hate Drew because he comes between Susan and Joe, but up until he starts working on a take-over bid behind the boss' back, he's the only character in the movie who seems to have his head screwed on straight.

"Meet Joe Black" is littered with silly little problems and not-so-silly gaping holes. I'm a nit-picker so my notes are full of them, but I won't bother you with the list. The fact is, no matter how weak the narrative, the reason this movie nose-dives come down to one thing: Brad Pitt stinks.

His deliberately dry performance as Joe is not only devoid of charisma, but also completely inconsistent. One moment he's playing for laughs, licking a spoon full of peanut butter like a little kid (Death has never tasted peanut butter before). The next moment he's threatening Hopkins with all the ominousness he can muster. (Hopkins is great, by the way, and completely wasted here.)

In most of his scenes, Joe is supposed to have an understated and uncomfortable air about him. But then, inexplicably, he will become loquacious, eloquent, poetic and slick for just one scene.

"Meet Joe Black" might pass muster with Pitt's swoony hoards of female fans. He does have one sexy love scene (although it's Joe Black's first time, so it only lasts two minutes, if you know what I mean) and two scenes (one at the beginning and one at the end) in which he turns on the charm full blast and really is terrific, demonstrating what this movie could have been.

But if you expect more for your seven bucks than just three hours in the presence of dreamy Brad, this movie is deathly uninteresting and a total waste of time.

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