Death warmed over Review: 'Meet Joe Black' is long and slow, like a lingering illness. Not even Sir Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt can breathe life into it.

November 13, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

To call the three-hour-long "Meet Joe Black" leaden would do an injustice to lead. To call it phlegmatic is to dishonor phlegm. To describe it as turgid does a disservice to honest turges everywhere.

Only the hardest-core Brad Pitt fans will want to brave this static, deflated entry into the Screen Angels Sweepstakes. If they insist on disregarding the best advice -- Don't go! -- then they should at least heed the following: Bring adequate lumbar support and gallons of coffee, not to mention a box of Kleenex. Because rest assured, tears will be jerked.

"Meet Joe Black," which is loosely suggested by the play "Death Takes a Holiday" (later turned into the 1934 movie starring Fredric March), revolves not around Pitt's character but a business tycoon named Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins). Parrish spills more money in a day than most people will earn in a lifetime, but he's just not happy. About to turn 65, he's nagged by a mysterious pain in his left arm, the onset of which is accompanied by a mysterious voice.

Heart attack? Stroke? Worse? Bill doesn't know, because he doesn't bother to see a doctor to find out. Which is strange, because one of this daughters, the beautiful Susan (Claire Forlani), is a medical resident who's constantly hanging around his Manhattan penthouse, taking dips in the pool and wafting around the art-strewn corridors (she isn't exactly the hardest-working doctor in show business).

After endless scenes of helicopter rides and dinners and people talking to each other, the mysterious voice finally makes its identity known and its presence seen. Enter the aggressively blonded Pitt as Death, who arrives not to speed things up but to take a break from all that reaping. A deal is made: As long as Bill can keep him entertained, Death will spare his life, an arrangement that could add entire weeks to the older man's life.

He installs himself at Bill's side, living at the penthouse, going to the office, sitting in on board meetings and, oh yes, falling in love with the comely Susan, who is a tad confused by this handsome stranger's behavior. (You can imagine the Cosmo quiz: Your boyfriend is moody and disappears for unexplained periods of time. He's A) on crack. B) married. C) The angel of death!)

Brad Pitt, who really should listen when his mother tells him to get that hair out of his eyes, may well be a very fine actor. But not in "Meet Joe Black," in which the shaggy heartthrob seems to have researched his role -- an odd semaphore of stilted speech, robotic movement and bobbing head -- by observing street mimes and dashboard dolls.

Still, Pitt cannot be faulted for "Meet Joe Black." This interminable exercise in non-cinema should be laid at the door of director Martin Brest, who has inexplicably orchestrated the movie as a series of long, dull scenes. We get lots of board meetings and corporate back-stabbing and literate speeches (the words "suborn," "imprimatur," "machinations" and "Machiavellian" popped up in a single scene).

Indeed, the most visceral moment of "Meet Joe Black" is the shocking sight of a much-loved character being hit by a car and tossed into the air, a scene that should be approached by Pitt's younger fans with extreme caution.

Only an actor of Hopkins' caliber could wrest a modicum of human feeling from the blurry character he's been handed, and against all odds he does, lending "Meet Joe Black" an acuity and verve that the movie doesn't deserve. (Marcia Gay Harden, as his other daughter, has some touching moments, too.)

But even a knight as noble as Sir Tony can't revive this somnolent enterprise. "Meet Joe Black" is an introduction best left unmade.

'Meet Joe Black'

Starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins

Directed by Martin Brest

Released by Universal Pictures

Rated PG-13 (an accident scene, some sexuality and brief strong language)

Running time: 180 minutes

Sun score: *

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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