If you were given the knowledge that your final moments embracing the gift of life were approaching and you had the opportunity to say goodbye to your loved ones and finish your final moments on your own terms, would you take it? The finality of death is the greatest sadness faced by humanity. At any given moment, we may cease to exist. At any moment, we will no longer have the opportunity to embrace those of us that are most important. Those whom we love will no longer have the opportunity to say a friendly hello or offer a warm hug. When death comes calling, our life is over. We may not see it coming. Even if we do, the moment that our last vision of existence flashes before our eyes passes, we no longer exist as anything more than a corpse. It is a morbid and sad reality, but when our time is up, there is nothing more we can do and any final goodbyes or hopeful tasks cannot be done.
How would you react if you knew that in a few short days, your healthy and perfectly happy existence is about to end? Would you find long lost loves and tell them how much they mean to you? Would you seek out all remaining family members and divvy out all personal belongings and tell each and every one of them that you loved them and want to thank them for being an intricate part of your life? Would you use these final days to wrap up unfinished business and create a situation where those left behind will be provided for and their remaining years of life are happy and fruitful? Are you the kind of person that would forget about responsibility and take part in great adventures and do many of the things that you had always wanted to do? Would you sit back and watch your favorite film one last time and listen to your favorite album just once more? Are you the kind of person that would become greatly saddened and mourn until your passing?
These are questions faced and situations that need to be considered for William Parish (Anthony Hopkins) in Martin Brest's modern adaptation of the 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday." In the picture, Parish is visited by the Grim Reaper and told that he will soon succumb to a heart attack. However, Death (Brad Pitt) has found a body of a man killed in an accident and decides to spend some time among humanity and prolong the inevitable for Parish and walk among men for a vacation. Parish's lovely daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) had previously met the young man who is being possessed by Death during a chance encounter at a coffee shop. The two find a bond and a strong attraction, but they walk away from each other and in all probability would have expected to have never again had the opportunity to meet. Death's vacation with Parish alters more than his fate, but that of his daughter.
Bill Parish is a successful business man and he is approaching his sixty fifth birthday. His older daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden) is planning a massive celebration for the wealthy millionaire and Bill is slowly grooming Susan's fiancé Drew (Jake Weber) into taking over some of the company's operations. His friend and brother-in-law Quince (Jeffrey Tambor) is a faithful friend that has long stood by Bill's side. All of them are soon to be affected by Death's visit as he takes the name Joe Black and refuses to leave Bill's side; whether it be a board meeting or an important decision for the birthday bash. Drew quickly begins to dislike Joe when he begins to believe that Bill has chosen Joe as a successor and it becomes quite apparent that Susan and Joe begin to have strong personal feelings towards each other.
Death learns valuable lessons about humanity during his vacation. He learns about love and comes to find strong feelings towards the lovely Susan, who adores him. He learns about trust and honesty and sees how Bill Parish is a well-loved man who has lived a great life and touched a great many lives. Death also learns to enjoy the taste of peanut butter. As he begins to understand the gift of life and partake in many of the activities of mankind, Death prolongs his vacation until the end of Bill's birthday party. He threatens to take Susan with him when his vacation ends and he causes Bill professional difficulties as Drew becomes distrustful of Joe and attempts to persuade the board into believing Bill is no longer capable of running the company.
"Meet Joe Black" is a film that has been strongly criticized since its release in 1998. The film has a decidedly slow pacing and the slow moving story is only amplified by its 181 minute running time. The film has also been criticized for the manner in which Brad Pitt portrays Death. In "Meet Joe Black," Death is given many childlike qualities during the earlier part of the film. He has no knowledge of peanut butter and has difficulty in engaging in certain conversations. Yet, he is fully capable of making love to Susan and concocting a plot about an IRS agent to save Bill's company from being merged and broken up by a competing conglomerate. The film has been called dull and it has been called poorly written. Regardless of the strong criticism against the film by most critics, I have always found some admiration in "Meet Joe Black." I don't consider it a great film. I'd hardly call it good. However, I don't mind calling it perfectly passable entertainment; albeit a bit long.
Brad Pitt portrays the naïve, yet sinister Death with conviction. His early moments before death violently came calling at the twenty-two minute mark with an incredibly entertaining encounter with a taxi cab were vintage Pitt. His first scenes with Claire Forlani were exactly the kind of moments that made the actor a heartthrob. Although I have never taken to the peanut butter scene, I enjoy the demeanor in which Pitt portrays Death. It is unique and understated, as if Death was truly experiencing life for the first time and taking in all that surrounded him. Anthony Hopkins is a great actor and he is very good as Bill Parish. The role affords Hopkins a number of scenes where he can convey the humanity and reflection of a man who has lived a great life, but must come to terms that it is nearly over. His final moments with his daughter Susan are both touching and effective. The dance scene is enough redemption for much of the pacing and the film's entire study of the human condition during the acceptance of death pays off when Susan realizes her father is saying goodbye.
Some editing and better pacing could have made "Meet Joe Black" a far better film. Many of the moments featuring Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor's characters only added weight to an already heavy story. Much of the storyline that is dedicated to the takeover of Parish's company could have been trimmed and streamlined. Had the film spent more time focusing on the relationships between Bill and his daughter and Susan and Joe; "Meet Joe Black" could have remained true to its central focus and not missed a single emotional opportunity when Death finally came to the realization that it was time to end the vacation. The film could have been forty minutes shorter, moved along smoother and been more focused in looking at Bill Parish's final moments. It is still a decent picture with fine performances and heartfelt moments and it is worth watching every once in a blue moon. However, the three hour running times makes it a long endeavor and not something you want to sit through all that often.
At a decade in age, "Meet Joe Black" is a superb looking catalog title. The 1.85:1 transfer is nicely encoded with the VC-1 codec and features deep details, perfectly realized colors and pristine source materials. The world of Bill Parish is lavish and detailed and brought very nicely to life by this HD-DVD release. Every blonde colored hair on Brad Pitt's head can be counted. Each nook and cranny in Anthony Hopkins weathered face can be traced. The complete film has a three dimensional appeal from the high level of detail. This is a sharply detailed picture and matched by the vivid colors of the film. The greens of the Parish Estate vegetation are perfect. The expensive suits of Bill Parish and the colorful outfits worn by his daughters all come to life in this film. The various shades of brown that are contained in the woodgrain of his home look superb. Black levels are also exquisite and the film's emotional climax under the fireworks looks stunning. Source materials are as clean as you can find. There isn't a blemish anywhere during the lengthy picture. This film can certainly not be knocked for how good it looks.
I had forgotten about the sonic capability of the gorgeous fireworks scene and the sound quality of the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack easily matches the visuals when the fireworks light the night sky. The .1 LFE channel booms heavily and mightily and matches the best action film soundtracks in bass response. It truly is as deep and clean as bass can get. However, aside from the final moments, Brad Pitt's chance meeting with a taxi and a handful of other moments in this long picture, there is not a lot of sound to get excited by in the picture. Thomas Newman's score is silent for much of the film and it does sound perfectly fine when present, but takes a definite back seat to the film's vocals. Being primarily dialogue driven, "Meet Joe Black" does have strong vocals and every spoken word is crystal clear and never sounds dead. Sorry for the pun. Had the film contained more moments where the capable soundtrack could be tested, "Meet Joe Black" would rate high. However, with most of its impressive length containing only words, it is a film that is mostly unimpressive in its sound. At least we have the fireworks.
"Meet Joe Black" has been released at least twice on standard definition DVD. The first release was bare-bones and essentially contained only the film. The next release was one of Universal's "Ultimate" releases and featured a number of great supplements, including the 1934 original film. Sadly, the HD-DVD only earns a few of the previously available bonus materials and misses out on the earlier picture. The Spotlight on Location (10:17) EPK offering is your standard fare cable television advertisement for the film. It contains a few nice behind the scenes moments, but is almost entirely promotional and Martin Brest is not the most entertaining interviewee. The Photo Montage (6:17) is a moving slideshow placed against the film's score and contains shots from both the film and its production. It is nothing exciting and by not being featured in high definition, is a missed opportunity. Finally, the Theatrical Trailer is contained on the disc.
I'm may be one of the very few people out there that now has three versions of this film on five inch video disc. I had an ex-girlfriend who loved Brad Pitt and I picked up the initial DVD release and then upgraded when the Ultimate Edition hit retail. Now, with the HD-DVD release I can enjoy the film with top-notch visuals and an explosive sounding finale. This is not a picture I can routinely sit down and watch, but I do feel it is a decent picture, although it is bloated in length. The good performances save the film from being a failure, but I admit that three hours makes this a tough movie to easily sit through. The supplements are poor. I feel the Ultimate Edition release is better as a whole because of its added value. This is a good looking disc though.
As a rental, "Meet Joe Black" isn't a bad choice, but I'd have trouble recommending the film to anybody that isn't a huge fan as a purchase decision. I've always been interested by the questions of how I would handle the knowledge of fate. I'm a person that would feel better if I could spend my last few days on my own terms and wasn't hit be a surprise of ultimate finality. The questions and humanity depicted in the film is subject matter that is not traditional in Hollywood. It isn't nearly as hokey as "Ghost" and far better than a few other movies where Death has character. Watch the ending and discover if it can bring a tear to your eye and then you can sit back and try to answer the plethora of questions in the first two paragraphs of this review. Do that, and "Meet Joe Black" might be a more meaningful experience.