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Review: It takes too long to 'Meet Joe Black'

graphic November 14, 1998
Web posted at: 8:39 p.m. EST (0139 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- There’s nothing like a little advance word to sell a movie. The people in the apartment below my friend Mike’s place are doing some remodeling, so lately there’s been a buzzsaw and a jackhammer ripping out the walls. This goes on for hours at a time, and the whole building shakes, rattles, and rolls like Big Joe Turner in heat. Taking pity, I called Mike to find out if he wanted to go with me to see the new Brad Pitt movie, "Meet Joe Black."

He opted for the jackhammer.

It really hasn’t been all that difficult to catch negative comments about this picture, because some of its key participants have already been less than enthusiastic when asked about it by the press. I don’t know if it’s true, but Anthony Hopkins (who co-stars with sparkly uber-person Pitt, among some pretty good others) has supposedly refused to promote the film because he dislikes it so much.

But what really shocked me was a report in New York’s subway newspaper of choice, The Daily News. The movie’s director, Martin Brest, said he knows that what he ended up with is way too long at three hours, but they couldn’t figure out how to make it any shorter when they cut it together.

Well, that might not have happened if he had discouraged the actors from inserting a pregnant pause after every other line of dialogue. This ... is ... a ... slow ... movie. Incredibly ... ... ... ... ... ... slow. Some of the pauses are so pregnant you could bring a bull elephant to term before the actor responds to a direct question.

And that’s a shame, too, because if the damn thing were an hour shorter, I probably would have liked it a lot. It’s got a fantastic cast, and is really quite lovely every now and then, in a let’s-make-a-buck romantic sort of way. You just feel like you’re dragging a set of dumbbells around with you while you’re watching it.

An agonizing Death

Pitt is surprisingly awful as Death, who’s come down to earth in the guise of a less-than perceptive young man named Joe Black. The movie is something of a variation on "Being There," with an innocent outsider weaseling his way into the corridors of power by not knowing what anybody’s talking about (never mind that Death should be the least innocent entity in creation).

Everybody who deals with him gets something different out of the exchange. Eventually, in case you couldn’t guess, a stunning woman (Claire Forlani, who officially enters my Gorgeous and Talented Hall of Fame with this one) falls in love with him.

Hopkins plays Bill Parrish, a media magnate who’s been having a lot of little heart attacks lately. Don’t you hate that? I guess he figures he can afford them, though. First of all, he’s loaded; there’s more modern art hanging around his house than they’ve got locked up in the basement at The Whitney.

He also sports a loving-but-bored family, comprised of a neurotic daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) who’s obsessed with planning her dad’s 60th birthday bash; another daughter (the inestimable Forlani) who’s a doctor; and a loyal business associate son-in-law (Jeffrey Tambor, every bit as good as he is on "The Larry Sanders Show").

Scene from Meet Joe Black
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During the film’s merciless series of introductory scenes, Forlani is shown having breakfast in a Manhattan coffee shop, where, before you know it, she strikes up a conversation with Robert Redford -- I mean, Brad Pitt. This is the best scene Pitt has in the film, and both his golden looks and his seemingly effortless charm are dead ringers for Redford in his early-’70s movie star prime.

Pitt even bugs his eyes out jokingly when he hears something that intrigues him, a move that Redford has always coupled with his patented one-eyed squint. Forlani (whose character is engaged to a conniving corporate shark played by Jake Weber) thinks she’s falling for Pitt. However, when they step outside the shop and Forlani turns the corner -- whoops -- lover boy gets run over by not one, but two cars. (It’s a shockingly convincing special effect, by the way.)

Postponing the inevitable

Cut to that evening. Death has decided that he wants to sample some earthly wonders himself, so he shows up at the Parrish mansion in the body of Pitt and tells Hopkins that he’ll postpone his fatal heart attack for a few weeks if he’ll agree to show him around the place.

The "place," of course, is the wonderfully sensuous experience known as human life, viewed from the honey jar perspective that only blockbuster movies can provide. So now Forlani has to speculate as to why the guy she flirted with earlier that day is suddenly staying at her house and seems to be a right-hand man to her dad.

The only quick thing about this entire undertaking (no pun intended) is when you quickly realize that Pitt doesn’t have a clue as to how to approach the role, and will be playing the same scene, oh, about 40 times over. One huge problem is that Death is written for sheer plot device convenience -- he’s as dumb as he needs to be in one situation, and as insightful as he needs to be in others. The emphasis is definitely on dumb, though.

Little girls in the audience were literally squealing with delight as Pitt did things like humorously sampling peanut butter for the first time, or trying to tie a tie. The worst part of this, though, is that Pitt plays the character as if he’s a sparrow coming out of anesthesia. He moves stiffly, speaks in a monotone, and jerks his head around quizzically at all the glorious riches that surround him.

And every time he talks to someone, he has to deliver concepts in cryptic bursts of four words or less ... that is, when he’s not delivering a homily. Joe ends up in a romance, but he also gets involved in a back-stabbing corporate takeover that helps add all that unnecessary time to the movie’s length.

Forlani shines

That left me ogling Forlani, so allow me to rhapsodize for a moment. I remember liking this young actress a lot last year when she was in a movie called "The Last Time I Committed Suicide," and I was soon pleased to hear that she was cast in a movie as big as "Meet Joe Black."

It turns out that she’s easily the best thing in the film. She’s an absolute natural on camera, displaying a gentle gawkiness that’s powerfully appealing when coupled with her glamour-girl looks. Even those looks are a little off, though. Her nose seems stretched a bit longer than you expect it to be, and she often appears to have been crying. But she’s very loose-limbed and endearing in a way that’s highly unexpected.

Two girls who were sitting next to me kept commenting about Pitt’s gorgeousness, but one of them eventually leaned over during a Forlani close-up and said, "She’s weird." The other one said, "No! She’s beautiful." Well, weird might be too strong a word, but her looks are certainly different. The thing is, she’s almost classically stunning while simultaneously looking like someone you might glimpse at the drug store.

And she can act! Her scenes with Hopkins are very nice; you sense a real father-daughter connection between the two simply in the way that they touch each other. I would imagine that Forlani has been a movie star her entire life. It’s just that people are only now figuring it out.

For sheer ‘90s star power, you can’t beat the inescapable "tender sex scene" between Pitt and Forlani. Pitt’s character, of course, doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he climbs on top of Forlani and starts acting like Helen Keller discovering the concept of water. But what a glass of water! I swear to God, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more gorgeous actors playing a scene together, even back in the ‘40s when this kind of appeal was at its peak.

It’s too bad Brest couldn’t figure out where the real story was in this windy contraption. You know what, though? Even with its own director volunteering bad press, I think there’s still a chance it could make a buck. Those periodic squeals I was hearing during the movie came from a pretty primitive place, but they were often well-earned.

"Meet Joe Black" is safe for most teen-agers, but Pitt’s death scene is scary. The sex is presented in expensive soap opera style. There’s very little bad language, and any nudity is implied. You might wanna bring a book to read. PG-13. 175 minutes, a relative facsimile of the eternity that Hopkins is trying to avoid.

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