Before I watched “Meet Joe Black,” Brad Pitt was just that guy from “Thelma & Louise” and “Interview with a Vampire.” I didn’t think much of Pitt because he hadn’t impressed me in anything I had seen him in up until that point. That’s the main reason I skipped “Meet Joe Black” when it hit theaters in late 1998.
When the movie hit home video the following year, my then-girlfriend “Meet Joe Black” as our date night movie. To be honest I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of watching a movie that was a remake of the 1934 film “Death Takes a Holiday.” I would have much rather watched that film than the new version. The situation looked even more daunting when I saw “Meet Joe Black” was such a long movie that it required two VHS tapes.
But as I eventually learned, “Meet Joe Black” is more than just about a rich older man trying to negotiate the terms of his own demise with death himself. The film is also about a young woman (the rich man’s daughter) falling in love with her ideal man, but who happens to be not a man at all. “Meet Joe Black” even makes time for scenes about sibling rivalry and a corporate takeover, both of which I found riveting.
Directed by Martin Brest, the film revolves around a man named William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) one of the world’s richest and most powerful media tycoons. Think Rupert Murdoch, but with a heart and soul. Early on in the film, Parrish is struck by a heart attack which he survives. Shortly thereafter, he starts hearing a voice in his head which at first he shrugs off. However, since Parrish is on the brink of his 65th birthday, he starts believing that his death is near.
Parrish can’t shake this feeling and his behavior starts changing and he becomes more honest than usual. One night he tells his beloved younger daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) that he likes her fiance Drew (Jake Weber), but doesn’t feel that she truly loves him back. He even suggests that she should keep an open mind, and the next day, in a coffee shop, she meets a stranger (Brad Pitt).
The two talk for a while and flirt with one another. In just a few minutes he says all the right things and lightning strikes. Susan doesn’t even know his name but it’s clear this is what her father was talking about and it’s not long before the two confess they like each other, but Susan has to report to work at the hospital, so they part and he is instantly killed when a car hits him.
That night at dinner, Susan is shocked to find the guy from earlier among her father’s guests. She tries to joke with him about their earlier encounter, but he does not recognize Susan. That’s because this isn’t the same man she met in the diner, because his body is now occupied by Death. Parrish introduces him as Joe Black, a friend who’s sticking around for a few days. But the truth is Death has come to this plane to inform Parrish that his end is near. But before the two depart, Death wants to take a few days to discover what the world is like.
I was hooked from the moment Brad Pitt became Death. Pitt plays the role of a child who is discovering new things about the world and humanity. I liked how he accompanied William Parrish to board meetings and said what was on his mind. Also the way he comforted a dying woman at Susans’s hospital. And it was clever that the woman realized who he was but wasn’t afraid of him. But perhaps my favorite scene was when Death discovered what peanut butter tasted like and then couldn’t get enough of it.
During his time with William Parrish, Death becomes friends with Parrish’s son in law, Quince (Jeffrey Tambor). The two hit it off probably because Quince welcomes Joe into the family without asking questions. Later when Drew forces Parrish out of his own company thanks to something Quince said, it’s Joe Black who comes to Quince’s aid. He tells him to tell Parrish the truth and that he will be forgiven because of his love for Parrish’s older daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden).
Speaking of Allison, I thought Marcia Gay Harden did an excellent job in the role. She plays someone who knows Susan is her father’s favorite but can live with that because Parrish has always been there for her. He’s also taught her ethics, sensitivity, and has always made her feel protected, even if he will never love her the same way he does Susan.
Anyways, was “Meet Joe Black” another type of movie, situations like these is where Joe Black would have used Quince’s situation to his advantage or played off other characters to do it for him. But Joe Black learns quite a bit from William Parrish in a short amount of time. And one of the things he’s perhaps learned is compassion for others, especially those close to you. This sort of scenario is not something I was expecting from this movie, and it made me like it even more.
Over the course of the film, Joe Black finds himself falling for Susan (Claire Forlani). At first, he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, but a conversation about love clues him in. This lead to a rare love scene between Death and Susan. Normally this type of scene would focus on the woman, but the way it’s shot here, all the focus is on Brad Pitt’s face. It sounds strange but it worked because it showed the viewer how Death was experiencing this very human moment.
As the film nears its third act, Joe Black is truly in love with Susan. So much so that he informs William Parrish than when it is time for them to go, Susan will be going with the Parrish is course livid at the idea, and warns Joe not to mess with Susan. He explains that he wants the best for her, and wants her to find a man who will love her now and forever. But Death is resolute and says Susan will go with them.
The movie’s ending takes place during William Parrish’s 65th birthday gala. And what a party it is with orchestra, fireworks, and hundreds of guests. This is a long sequence, but a satisfying one as well. The party features farewells, reflections, confessions, reassurances, reconciliations, and a surprise or two.
The birthday party sequence has two of my favorite parts in the film: One when Joe Black helps Parish get his company back from Drew by pretending to be an IRS agent. Once Drew is defeated, Joe even throws Drew’s old line about nothing in life is certain except for death and taxes. I honestly thought he was going to reveal his true identity to Drew, but the twist made me laugh as did the orchestra out back almost playing on cue.
My second favorite scene comes when Joe says goodbye to Susan in the middle of the party. Claire Forlani looks gorgeous, almost angel like. For me, this is the best work she’s done in her career. I believe she fell head over heels for Joe. And despite the fact that there are hundreds of people around them, the scene is so intimate that you’d think the two were standing there alone. When Susan asks Joe to take her with him, it’s heartbreaking. But the way Susan reacted, I always got the feeling that she knew exactly who Joe Black really was.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of this movie. However, I am by no means saying “Meet Joe Black” is a better film than “Death Takes a Holiday.” But as a standalone film, “Meet Joe Black” is a wonderful film. Easily the highlight is the acting of Brad Pitt as Joe. But Claire Forlani has a touching vulnerability about her too, and Anthony Hopkins never disappoints. Yes, “Meet Joe Black” is a long movie, but if you haven’t seen it, It’s worth checking out.