1 item from 1998
"Meet Joe Dud", er, "Meet Joe Black", an otherworldly romantic saga starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, plods with such lifeless sluggishness that its 2-hour, 58-minute duration seems more like seven weeks and seven days.
Topped with appealing stars and awash with lavish production values, this Universal release's problem is not with the fixings, but with the bottling.
Under director Martin Brest's maudlin, heavy hand, "Joe Black" has no fizz, only fizzle. With Pitt's golden presence, it will likely open to sparkling numbers, but negative reaction to the movie should quickly bury "Joe Black".
Running the gamut of demographics, from teenage girl fans of Pitt to aficionados of classic-style romances, word-of-mouth (including reviews as incendiary as this one) will put the nails in this film's commercial coffin. As an allegory about death, "Joe" is a stiff; as a romantic comedy, it's mirthless; and as a spectacle, it's a drudge.
Based loosely on both the stage and screen entity "Death Takes a Holiday", Pitt stars as an enigmatic outsider, named Joe Black who seeks out a very wealthy champion of business, Parrish (Hopkins) on the cusp of the guy's 65th birthday. It's a particularly heady and unnerving time for Parrish, who, naturally, reassesses his life, both professional and personal. Black comes to him in the form of voices, and in a matter of urgency: Parrish is experiencing physical signs of an impending heart attack and he must confront his own mortality. Appearing at his door and giving him a new lease on life is Joe Black, the personification of death. Fearing his imminent demise, Parrish lets Joe Stick around and help him impart his wisdom to future generations and, thusly, Joe grants him a reprieve.
Swathed around this layered and multigeneric plot line are big-think sentiments and laudable notions: wealth doesn't buy happiness, seize the day, don't settle for less, etc. Unfortunately, these thematics are trumpeted so relentlessly, ladled out in such repetitive heaps that they mush together as merely irritating sermons. The multidimensional story is so dourly executed that it's as if the Swedish Film Institute had suddenly taken over a Frank Capra project and sucked the life's blood from it. Not all the tuxedos in closetdom, not all the violins in all the symphonies, not all the rays of golden-time lensing can belie the fact that "Joe Black"'s essence is embodied in such a desultory, grim script.
Usually when one espies four screenwriting credits, one shudders at the possibilities for alternate sensibilities or atonal inconsistencies; in this case, we fear that the screenwriting credits did not accurately include hundreds more who may deserve credit, including, perhaps, the entire senior partnership of a corporate law firm, so painstakingly dotted is every dramatic "i" and so listlessly crossed is every comedic "t." The viewer who does not understand a plot or thematic point in one scene (falling asleep would be an excuse), however, should not have to worry -- there will be six or seven subsequent scenes that detail the same stuff. While the jokes are not that original, they are repeated in mathematical variation, reincarnated in all their permutations. Most woefully, the dialogue is of such a snitty, overvarnished and gratingly crude nature that what little polish "Joe Black" might radiate is mitigated by such witty repasts as "I don't give a shit", with such finery being immediately bow-tied with swelling violin music.
Pitt's performance is somewhat entertaining, particularly in the film's early parts when he studiously emits a Robert Redford circa 1975 turn, including the Redford-ish flourish of clumsily munching food while serving up casual iconoclasm.
Unfortunately, Pitt abandons the Redford turn and the remainder of his performance seems otherwise inspired: it's so somnambulistic that one guesses he either based it on rewatching " Star Trek" TV classics or has embraced herbal supplements big-time. It's astonishingly uncharismatic and scattered. Joe Black comes off as a confused house pet. In Pitt's defense, this quadri-penned screenplay (Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, Bo Goldman) is so turgid and stolid that character personalities are merely stereotypical, broad caricatures. There is virtually no idiosyncrasy in the writing, other than the cloying ingredient that Joe Black favors peanut butter as his favorite food. Peanut butter jokes (where he gobbles it in inappropriate settings) soon become stale.
Still, there are unexpected flourishes from Pitt, most memorably a hospital scene where Pitt converses with an old Jamaican woman in Jamaican. His quasi-voodoo is uproarious: imagine if Jimmy Cliff had spent 20 years in Belfast and acquired a bit of a brogue.
What's really good about Pitt's participation, though, is that he looks really terrific in a tux, and, quite sagely, director Brest makes ample use of that excellency. It's hard to recall a film, past or present, in which the star made more, well, star entrances -- appearing midscene from behind curtains, mounting stairwells, entering boardrooms, etc. -- than this one. As if these visual treats were not enough, "Joe Black" is always heightened by the ever-eager string work and oboe-ish cadenzas. But often these technical flourishes fall flat: "Joe Black"'s big love scene between Pitt and Claire Forlani is so florid and gooishly golden that one's mind wanders, wondering where the usually omnipresent peanut butter might be when it is clearly needed.
Other performers fare better than the beleaguered Pitt. Hopkins' spry performance as the man of mettle millionaire is a high point, while for the most part, the other players suffer from the wafer-dimensioned writing. As the sensitive daughter, Forlani's performance -- consisting largely of piercing her eyebrows -- lacks appeal. Among supporting suits, Jeffrey Tambor is well-cast as Hopkins' suck-up son-in-law, convincing as an oily and insincere user, while Jake Weber is appropriately smarmy as a household snake-in-the-grass.
Under Brest's overripe wand, the technical contributions are well-executed but, alas, only serve to muddle and distend the story line. Given the tediously dowdy screenwriting, the lavish technical contributions are akin to putting a cummerbund on a pair of bib overalls.
Still, highest praise to production designer Dante Ferretti for capturing the humor in the ostentation; in particular, his re-creation of an overblow party setting is so hilarious in its hideousness that should Guber and Peters ever team to head a studio again, they might put him on permanent party-planning retainer.
Indeed, "Joe Black"'s pumped-up fireworks/party finale, with enough gunpowder to fuel every Chamber of Commerce's Fourth of July blast, is emblematic of "Joe Black" -- bombastic but empty.
MEET JOE BLACK
A City Light Films production
A Martin Brest film
Producer-director: Martin Brest
Executive producer: Ronald L. Schwary
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Dante Ferretti
Co-producer: David Wally
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designers: Aude Bronson-Howard, David C. Robinson
Casting: Juliet Taylor, Ellen Lewis
Associate producer: Celia Costas
Sound mixer: Danny Michael
Joe Black: Brad Pitt
William Parrish: Anthony Hopkins
Susan Parrish: Claire Forlani
Drew: Jake Weber
Allison: Marcia Gay Harden
Quince: Jeffrey Tambor
Running time -- 178 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
1 item from 1998
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