MEET JOE BLACK
In the end, Meet Joe Black reads like an Ivy League Old Boy wish fulfilment fantasy. The only character who seems to learn anything about life throughout the course is Anthony Hopkinss billionaire. However, the conclusions he reaches about life are not ones that one feels particularly comfortable with. Hopkins seems to accept a life that is singularly lacking in passion and love, and the film seems to say it is more important to die with dignity and the respect of your business community and surrounded by ones family (who never seem a particularly close group) than any joie de vivre. Indeed, the film seems more concerned with Anthony Hopkins retaining control of the business he built with his own hands than it is with he dying with any emotion and feeling in his life. (In any other film of this type, this would be a character that would be regarded as in need of redemption and the rediscovery of the joy of living). In lieu of any feeling, the film substitutes a muted decorum Anthony Hopkinss death scene simply takes place with he and Brad Pitt walking off together over a bridge. We never see Hopkins dying or for that matter even learn how he does so (presumably a heart-attack, as he felt chest pains earlier). Certainly, if one were to look back on their own life, one would like to think it had been a life filled with more passion than Anthony Hopkinss life here seems to have in it.
One of the most irritating and contrived plot devices is one that has Brad Pitt impersonating an IRS agent to expose Jake Webers double-dealings to an eavesdropping executive board. One understands that this is there to wrap up the subplot the film has created about Webers double-dealings but the character change the contrivation requires on Brad Pitts part is almost impossible to swallow. Most of the film establishes Death as a complete innocent in human ways not even knowing, for instance, how to use a knife and fork. It seems preposterous that such an innocent can suddenly develop the sophistication to convincingly pull off such a bluff. Equally preposterous is Brad Pitts line calling Jake Weber the most machiavellian person he has ever encountered and threatening Weber with eternal punishment. It seems outrageous to suggest that a Death who has surely claimed the souls of the greatest mass murderers in history can regard an avaricious soul who has conducted an unscrupulous and dishonest (but certainly not illegal) boardroom coup as worthy of eternal damnation. Death, it seems, is someone who makes friends. It makes Meet Joe Black seem even more of an Ivy League Old Boy fantasy it is surely indicative of the conservative set of values that the film advocates that someone who commits a moderately disreputable scheme to unseat a decent, honest man from his own company is more evil than the greatest sadists and mass murderers in history.
During the 1990s, Brad Pitt seemed to unevenly vie between strong screen performances Kalifornia (1993), Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and ones that show him up as no more than a pretty pinup boy Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), Legends of the Fall (1994), The Mexican (2001). You cannot deny he is an actor that is trying to challenge himself by taking on ambitious roles, nor say that he is not an actor without talent. Unfortunately, here he gives what is surely one of his silliest performances, playing Death sort of as if Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94)s Data the android were trying to play a bleach-blonde surfer. There is an initially cute silliness to it but at three hours all the zombified gloopy innocent poses eventually become too much. There is never anything to Pitts performance that suggests the majesty that one might associate with a figure like Death. Anthony Hopkins plays with composure and dignity, although seems to be sleepwalking through the role for the greater part. Claire Forlani, in her major breakthrough role, is beautiful but it is a shy, demure beauty who seems too reticent to ever project anything.
Director Martin Brest has made several quite reasonable films Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Midnight Run (1988) and Scent of a Woman (1992). Of Gigli (2003), which seemed to kill his career, we will say nothing. Here Brest disappointingly chooses to downplay the films fantasy elements. We never see Deaths true personage and the scenes in the original where people do not die due to Death having taken a holiday have been dropped completely. The device used with Death appearing to Anthony Hopkins and echoing his own words back to him seems silly. You cannot help feeling that a film like this would have worked better if Martin Brest had not kept Death off-screen and concentrated on the romance and had opened up with more confidence in the fantasy side of the film. It would have given Meet Joe Black greater stature and made it seem less trivial. The same years similarly themed City of Angels (1998), which in a like manner had an afterlife guardian come to Earth and falling in love and was equally unsatisfying, at least had far more confidence in its fantasy.
Meet Joe Black was one of a spate of films in 1998 centred around afterlife themes. Aside from the aforementioned City of Angels, others included the excellent What Dreams May Come (1998) and the delightful Japanese entry After Life (1998).