Meet Joe Black

on November 13, 1998 by Wade Major
   Fans of the play and subsequent 1934 Frederic March film "Death Takes a Holiday" will find few recognizable remnants in the very loose remake "Meet Joe Black," an intermittently charming but grossly overlong and over-sentimental romance salvaged only by superior production values and top-notch performances.
   The basic premise of the new film is the same: Death (Brad Pitt) enters the human world under mortal guise to investigate the particulars of "life" and why the souls he takes fear losing it so much. Thereafter, "Meet Joe Black" takes a decidedly less cerebral tack than its predecessor, at times bearing a closer resemblance to both the recent "City of Angels" and John Carpenter's 1984 film "Starman."
   In this updated telling, the brood of Italian nobles has been replaced by the family of wealthy communications mogul William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a pillar of integrity enlisted by Death, aka Joe Black, to serve as his "tour guide" in exchange for a few more precious days of life. Subsequent complications follow predictable fish-out-of-water conventions, with "Joe" awkwardly insinuating himself into Parrish's life, only to fall headlong in love with his romantically-handicapped youngest daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani). An obligatory "business" subplot involving a merger that threatens to destroy Parrish's company satisfies the remaining cliches.
   It's no surprise that the platoon of writers credited with scripting "Meet Joe Black" should fall back on the time-tested formulas of old-fashioned movie romance, given just how desperately director/producer Martin Brest ("Scent of a Woman") seems to want to evoke the spirit of those same old-fashioned romances.
   What is surprising is that it takes them so long to do it. At just a minute shy of three hours, the film is nearly two-and-a-half times the length of "Death Takes a Holiday," and nearly twice as long as the schmaltziest romances of the '30s and '40s. As if overlength and languid pacing weren't enough of a problem, Brest further wallows in an almost apocalyptic sentimentality, leaning on composer Thomas Newman to provide towering tympani- and cymbal-laden crescendos at even the slightest emotional provocation.
   Fortunately, the film survives its own excesses, powered by a superlative cast and magnificent technical contributions from production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. With all due credit to both Hopkins and Pitt, however, it is Forlani whose radiance and magnetism help keep the film's dramatic and emotional bearings on course. Unconventionally beautiful and gifted with a talent for conveying a profound sense of sadness, Forlani here makes a move toward superstardom that transcends even the superstars with whom she is teamed.
   Whether or not such attributes are enough to convince audiences to stay put for what is little more than a 3-hour date flick is another matter. Starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor. Directed by Martin Brest. Written by Ron Osborn & Jeff Reno and Kevin Wade and Bo Goldman. Produced by Martin Brest. A Universal release. Romantic fantasy. Rated PG-13 for an accident scene, some sexuality and brief strong language. Running time: 179 min
Tags: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Tambor, Directed by Martin Brest. Written by Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, Bo Goldman, Produced by Martin Brest, A Universal release, Romantic fantasy, crescendos, emotional, magnificent, sadness, superstardom

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