Meet Joe Black

Year: 1998
Studio: Universal
Director: Martin Brest
Producer: Martin Brest
Writer: Ron Osborn/Jeff Reno/Kevin Wade/Bo Goldman
Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Marcia Gay Harden, Jake Weber, Jeffrey Tambor

History remembers this film as a failure, particularly after the story circulating in the wake of its release that Brad Pitt wanted to forget it ever happened. According to a story online, the studio took criticisms about it being too long to heart and cut a shorter version for TV that director Martin Brest disowned and turned into an Alan Smithee film.

It made a decent amount of money but of course it was one of the first films to show the Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace trailer, and we all remember the stories about fans paying to see any movie showing it and running out to catch it in front of the next one.

In another world it would have featured original stars Christopher Reeve as Joe and Gene Hackman as Parrish, but that probably wouldn't have worked – it would have reminded everyone of Superman.

Whatever you remember hearing, forget it and see Meet Joe Black unprepared. Several elements make it a beautiful film. Over the last decade Anthony Hopkins has been known more for heavy-handed grandstanding in films like The Wolfman and Thor but here he keeps it a little on the quiet side and the personality he can bring off the page shines through as the sensitive, loving father and industrialist Parrish.

Until you think about the roles he's played, you forget that Pitt's an accomplished actor as much as a movie star, and he does a great job here. Criticisms about his wooden acting don't stick because he's playing the grim reaper, an entity that's never inhabited a human body before and doesn't know anything about living in the world. There's both a gravity of knowledge as broad as forever and the naivety of a child in him.

William Parrish is closing a huge deal to make a fortune of his media conglomerate and is approaching his birthday. His devoted daughter Allison (Harden) is determined to stage the party to end all and Parrish is grateful but doesn't want a big deal.

Truth be told (as Allison herself says in a scene that's as mature as it is touching) Susan (Forlani) is his favourite daughter and he dotes on her at every opportunity. Early in the film Susan meets a handsome young man (Pitt) in a coffee shop. They strike up a conversation and attraction but leave each other not having acted on it, the man gone from Susan's life. As soon as he's out of her sight he's hit by two cars in a shocking but technically impressive scene and leaves the story.

Around the same time, a young man who looks just like the one who was killed visits William, identifies himself as Death and offers Parrish a deal. The older man is due to die any day, and if Death delays it, Parrish is to show him the world and humanity and be his guide until he's had his fill.

It seems a fair bet, but when Susan meets the man William starts calling Joe Black, she assumes he's the man from the coffee shop and the attraction returns. To William's displeasure (as he's the only one who knows who Joe really is), Joe falls just as in love with Susan even though he knows there's no way of it working.

There are no splashy special effects, no dramatic histrionics and no gimmicks. See the original cut if you can (it should be the standard DVD version) where each character has the room and time to evolve and show themselves. It's one of the few films that depicts rich and powerful people and doesn't automatically set them up to be evil and in need of redemption. Everyone is an adult and has good motives – the drama arises out of the situation, not necessarily a central antagonist.

It unrolls at a languid pace in everything from the dialogue to the single tasteful sex scene and there's a sheen of quality and class across the whole film and everyone involved should actually be proud – Pitt included. You've got to feel for Martin Brest though, after having one of the funniest last names in Hollywood he's had rotten luck with projects. After the original Beverly Hills Cop he's best known for films that are remembered as being awful, like this one and Gigli.

© 2011-2023 Filmism.net. Site design and programming by psipublishinganddesign.com | adambraimbridge.com | humaan.com.au