Film Discussion

Meet Joe Black – Throwback 20

Released in November 1998, Universal was banking on Meet Joe Black to help them regain some box-office clout after a not-great summer in which the studio lost money on movies such as Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, One True Thing, Primary Colors and Mercury Rising. It was not a good year for the studio, and Psycho and Virus wouldn’t help things when released at the end of the year. However, Universal put a lot of money into Meet Joe Black – hoping it would pay off.

The movie did earn $143 million in worldwide box-office, a lot of which was brought in as Meet Joe Black featured the 90 second teaser preview for the upcoming Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace before the movie. Nice arrangement. Audiences were buying MJB tickets for sure, but leaving as soon as the teaser was over. I wonder, 20 years later, how many people stayed to actually watch the film they spent the $10 ticket on.

Meet Joe Black was the first film by director Martin Brest since the triumphant Scent of a Woman in 1992 which earned Brest a box-office hit (In January no less) and a Best Director Oscar nomination. With one of the world’s biggest stars (Brad Pitt) starring, a mammoth $90 million budget (only ten million less than the Star Wars movie previewed before it), a guarantee that Brest had control over the film’s running time (180 minutes!) and Universal moving the schedule from summer to fall, everybody was hoping for a hit.

It wasn’t. Universal Pictures chairman and CEO Casey Silver was fired two weeks after Meet Joe Black opened.

So 20 years later, the question remains: is the movie itself any good? The answer is yes – Meet Joe Black is quite good. Is it too long? Oh God, yes. Does it lag? At times. Are the actors good? Yes.

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Pitt demonstrates some charisma in the beginning as Joe, a guy who catches the eye of Susan, (Claire Forlani) a young doctor who works in a hospital nearby. She falls for him of course, but they’re not meant for much more it seems, as right after walking away from her, Joe gets sandwiched between two speeding cars and is sent flying to his death. Like, oh my God – look how this had to hurt. Joe re-emerges as death who has come to take Bill Parrish – Susan’s father.

As Death, Pitt plays him as a childish, innocent – which was very wrong for the role. He must have studied Harrison Ford’s performance in Regarding Henry as he’s basically doing the same thing here. The guy doesn’t even understand simple words. You’d think Death, who has been around since creation, would know what peanut butter was.

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Co-star Anthony Hopkins (an actor who at times has been accused of chewing the scenery) as Bill Parrish dials the appetite back here and often lets his eyes and movements do the acting when it matters the most. Jake Weber as Drew is terrific as the under-handed corporate weasel who in a few deft strokes manoeuvres Hopkins’ business right out from under him before anyone’s head has finished spinning. Drew is also dating Susan, which adds an extra element of sleaziness to his conniving actions.

Of course, Joe and Susan fall in love with each other although there doesn’t seem to be much passion demonstrated between the two actors. When this movie was filming during the spring and fall of 1997, Pitt was going through a breakup with Gwyneth Paltrow, so maybe creating romance on-screen wasn’t on his mind – which was unfortunate as Universal was spending $90 million on a romance. Forlani is lovely but the script gives her nothing much to do but stare wide-eyed at Joe with a “who are you?” look on her face for pretty much most of the movie.

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Ultimately Bill accepts that his time alive on Earth has come to an end, but he’s not going to stand by and watch Joe/Death bring Susan into it. Basically the last hour of this film features much yelling by Bill to Joe telling him to leave Susan alone. This and trying to get Bill’s business back in his control and making sure that Bill’s very expensive birthday party is happening are the big dramatic storylines here, and they take a long, long time to get resolved.

One of the criticisms leveled at this movie upon its release was the pacing. Sure it was three hours long, but three hours doesn’t have to mean boring. Just 11 months earlier, Titanic was released and nobody complained about the length of that movie – in fact, people were buying tickets to go see it again. Braveheart and Heat were two recent three hour movies that energized and thrilled audiences. Brest’s own Scent of a Woman was nearly 160 minutes long but that movie moved. That movie’s characters (much like the ones in Brest’s previous movies Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run) traversed the country so the events on-screen were fresh and exciting. Meet Joe Black mostly takes place inside the sprawling Parrish mansion, so the characters in have nowhere to go but to another room. This could be a major reason why this movie wasn’t successful.

But despite the major flaw of pacing and an unbelievable romantic main plot line , there are very good things going for Meet Joe Black. Jeffrey Tambor is great in a supporting role as Bill’s son-in-law, Quince. The sets by legendary production designer Dante Ferretti are sumptuous to take in by eye, and Thomas Newman’s score is tender, eloquent, heart breaking and altogether wonderful (although, the sound mixer cranked the music up way too loud at the end).

After Meet Joe Black, Pitt starred in the groundbreaking, revolutionary powder-keg Fight Club, Forlani never got another big-budget starring role (besides Mystery Men), and Brest emerged five years later with the trimmed down but unbearable Gigli. Sadly, he has not made another movie since, which is a damn shame as Brest is a great (yes, great) filmmaker. For Meet Joe Black‘s few faults, it would be preferable to see a studio give Brest another $90 million and approval of a three hour cut to tell a story he cares about, rather than a lower cost, shorter movie, because the difference between Meet Joe Black and Gigli shows an artist who cares too much and one who has stopped caring at all after a studio knockdown. Most movie lovers will want to watch a movie that its creator cares about – and Brest really cared about Meet Joe Black.

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