|Photo by Phillip Caruso|
An angel stalks this earth of late, renting space in the bodies of high-end male movie stars anxious to leaven their hard-boiled résumés with goodness and mercy. Nothing wrong with that – a bit of otherworldly first aid never goes amiss when reality grows dull or desperate – if only the winged messengers weren't all cut from the same life-affirming, death-affirming, everything-affirming cloth. John Travolta, Nicolas Cage . . . and now meet Joe Black, a.k.a. Brad Pitt, set down on this mortal coil to stamp out the dysfunction in a patrician family before he carries off its elder to meet his maker.
Actually, it's hard to tell who's angel and who's human in Meet Joe Black. Media tycoon Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is himself such a wizard with miracles, he's managed to become stinking rich without hurting a fly or compromising a principle. When told his time is up, he buckles down to putting his affairs in order, announcing to his board of directors that “reporting the news is a privilege” and convening healing family dinners every night. For Bill has been niggardly in showing love to his eager-to-please older daughter, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden, good as ever), who's planning the world's most ostentatious party for her father's 65th birthday. And he lacks the very passion he preaches to his beloved second-born, Susan (Claire Forlani), a doctor who is lethargically dating her father's oily, bounty-hunting henchman, Drew (Jake Weber).
With all this loose emotion hanging around, the film can't help but turn into a romantic drama, edged with labored comic bits and nudged by a score that moves smoothly from waggish Pink Pantherisms to Gershwin, Berlin and much incidental violining. After a brief corporeal appearance as a son-of-Robert-Redford towhead who charms Susan in a coffee-shop, Pitt skips town in a rather attention-seeking way, only to return as the Angel of Death, tailing Bill through his daily life while grooming him for the great journey to the hereafter. A cuter, more lovable grim reaper you haven't run across in – well, in months, since a ghostly Nicolas Cage gently stalked Meg Ryan in City of Angels, itself a remake of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Although he was inspired by the 1934 adaptation of the play Death Takes a Holiday, director Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman) is essentially remaking the remake of the Wenders. Only he's hell-bent on art, and art in Hollywood, as we who mourn the demise of the 90-minute movie know to our cost, equals length.
Meet Joe Black is a hefty three hours long, and just so you know, it's at least two hours before someone unbuttons Pitt's shirt, an exercise so long-winded it had a fellow critic in the seat next to mine moaning, “Oh God, doesn't he have a zipper?” After a brisk setup Brest slows his pace to a numbing crawl, leaving Pitt, Forlani and Hopkins with little to do but stare at each other with penetrating blue eyes and hope against hope that a plot shows up soon. It does, in the form of a desultory boardroom coup staged by the odious Drew, some welcome light relief from Jeffrey Tambor as Allison's good-natured bumbler of a husband, and a decision by Mr. Black that it might be a neat thing to be human, especially if the payoff is Claire Forlani's cheekbones. Forlani is a great beauty and she can act, but she's being used here like a mannequin from the Victoria's Secret catalog. Pitt's a beauty, too, but his ingénue shtick – a boundless appetite for peanut butter that we're supposed to find cute, and a propensity for bursting into speeches stuffed with mystifying complex clauses – grows old much faster than the movie. As does the ubiquitous goodwill that mounts to a crescendo when Meet Joe Black lumbers to its inevitably kind-hearted homestretch. “Mind if I throw up?” asks Drew, asphyxiated by uplift. I feel his pain.