Published November 1, 1998
James Cameron has a lot to answer for. By making the top grossing film of all time a three hour plus extravaganza he has convinced the money men that it’s OK to break the two hour barrier so long as you’ve got a picture that’s going to pull the teeny-boppers, with plenty of spending money and free time and no homework to occupy it, into the cinemas. If Leonardo Di Caprio could do it for Titanic, must have reasoned Frank Biondi at Universal Pictures, why should not Brad Pitt do it for Meet Joe Black, a much too-long remake of Death Takes a Holiday (1934) which starred Fredric March and was based on a popular play by Alberto Casella, which was adapted into English by Maxwell Anderson.
The original at least raised some serious questions, as the reason for Death’s assuming human form was to find out why people fear him, a question of intrinsic interest. This Death, offers only a general curiosity as his reason for his taking the body of Mr Pitt, supposedly freshly killed in a traffic accident. “I have a certain function to perform, and it takes up most of my time,” he says. “I sometimes speculate on what I don’t have room for.” Room is one thing he has plenty of in this movie, but we are not much the wiser at the end of it.
Anthony Hopkins, who plays the tycoon whom Death has come for, and who buys a little more time by showing him around planet earth—or at least New York City—steals the show. But even he hasn’t got much to do, really, and his playing the Victorian papa at the prospect of having Death as a son-in-law is merely silly. Martin Brest, the director, and his writers (four of them are credited) apparently didn’t think much dialogue was necessary when they had the eloquence of Brad’s silent but soulful gaze into the eyes of his love interest, Claire Forlani, to rely on. Miss Forlani is unquestionably a beautiful woman, but she takes the actressy virtue of an expressive face to absurd lengths. She has hurt eyes. And a hurt mouth. Probably hurt ears too, but you can’t bear to watch any more of her, once she gets her hurt eyes and her hurt mouth working together. You can only take a gun and put her out of her misery.
Neither she nor Mr Pitt seems to have much to say. You would think that Death would have some stories to tell. Whatever the drawbacks to keeping company with him, at least he must be an entertaining dinner guest. But this Death is a man of few words. He is, moreover, a man used to being watched. This is where it becomes difficult to separate Death from Brad Pitt. Death acts like a movie star: soft-spoken, self-assured, always the most important figure in the room. We are meant to watch him mime the discovery of the senses, as he has assumed a human body for what we are supposed to believe is the first time, and the movie boils down to the looks on his face as he discovers the delights of peanut butter or sexual intercourse—and on her face as she tries to convey the pain of loving a guy who isn’t, well, quite all there.
Come to think of it, maybe the film is a parable. Maybe Death and movie stars really do have a lot in common. Certainly Death and this movie have the common property of lasting forever, or feeling as if they do. Surely even the teeny boppers must get tired of looking at Mr Pitt as the clock ticks on for three hours? But whether because the movie went on for too long, or because Pitt isn’t androgynous enough, or because it wasn’t the most brilliant stroke of casting against type to put him into the role of the Grim Reaper—whatever the reason, poor Joe Black didn’t live up to box office expectations and Mr Biondi is now seeking other employment. I hope his firing serves as an example to other studio heads and that they will think twice or thrice before making us sit through a three-hour movie again.