Meet Joe Black: Revisiting Brad Pitt’s Interminable, Ridiculous, Death-Defying Drama
At 25, the Brad Pitt vehicle is an exercise in patienceMovies Features Anthony Hopkins
I had an English teacher in high school who, because I was a little jerk, I resented at the time for being rigorous and exacting. But he must’ve been a good teacher, because I remember what he taught, and it’s all proven to be true. It was important, he said, to learn how to read long, plodding works. Sit down and settle in, he said as he assigned us Great Expectations; sit on the throne if you have to (meaning the toilet), but do the reading. Get it done. It’s a skill you need to develop. He was right, of course: Sometimes writers (or filmmakers, or Hideo Kojima) can’t or won’t get their message out succinctly, and you’ve got to bear with them or you’ll miss out on their insight. Some things that are worth saying just take longer to say, or maybe the only people we have who know how to say them don’t know how to say them any other way.
Meet Joe Black, with the benefit of 25 years to mull the thing over now that I can rent it off YouTube rather than from Blockbuster on two entire VHS tapes, does not need to take as long as it takes to say whatever the heck it is that it has to say. (I did, at one point during the two separate sittings I watched it across, have it on my phone while I was actually on the toilet. Thanks, Mr. Stelk.) That life is all the sweeter for the fact it is fleeting, that we don’t appreciate the riches we have in life until they’re about to be taken away from us, that to accept our fate rather than rail against it is the gentlemanly way of living (and dying), that without trust there can’t truly be love—all these ideas are touched on by Meet Joe Black, but none feel like the main thesis. And yet, like steeling yourself to read the most intricate works of fantasy, such unique moments await you if you devote the time to this three-hour chamber drama, this movie that cost $20 million more (in 1998 money!!!) than Saving Private Ryan—despite involving 100% fewer Normandy landing scenes—this specimen which even today remains one of the most Brad Pitt vehicles that ever Brad Pitted.
Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is hearing voices in his head and awakening at night with symptoms that seem like cardiac distress. He’s the head of a major news media company, and his 65th birthday party is rapidly approaching. At the same time, a predatory company keeps trying to buy him out. Meanwhile, his daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) meets an unnamed fellow in a diner (Brad Pitt in a suit that is either about four inches too big for him in the chest or just from the ’90s) who charms her. The two keep watching each other as they walk out of one another’s lives—after all, they’re not going to follow-up on a little flirt at a coffee shop!—when Brad Pitt gets run the hell over. Twice.
Everything you need to know about the experience of watching Meet Joe Black is there in that two-and-a-half minute clip, an interminable stretch of screentime: Compelling performances by two sexy leads, followed by a lot of shots of them doing the same thing as Thomas Newman’s score luxuriates longingly in the moment…and then out of nowhere something thoroughly ridiculous happening. You will never know if that ridiculous thing awaits you at the end of the scene you are watching. There are so, so few of them, and they arrive with no fanfare whatsoever. Sometimes, you need to do the reading to experience the sublime.
Pitt’s body is hijacked by Death—the Grim Reaper, a shinigami, an actual honest-to-goodness psychopomp—for the purposes of coming down to Earth and meeting Bill face to face. Bill, Death explains, is the perfect man to show him around and teach him just what human life is actually like. In exchange, Bill gets to live a while longer. The deal is non-negotiable, Death says, because who the hell can possibly argue with him?
It’s not an exaggeration to say Hopkins is maybe the best actor ever at conveying interiority. You see his character’s every feeling written on his expressions and in his mannerisms and in the way he delivers individual words of dialogue. He can’t really disappear into a role, but he makes you believe that he, Anthony Hopkins, is really going through whatever emotions the character he’s playing is going through. He’s exceedingly well-used in Meet Joe Black, which would not work at all without him. The other characters—Marcia Gay Harden as his less-favored daughter, Jeffrey Tambor as her husband and one of the only loyal board members of his company, Jake Weber as the scheming young hustler who wants to sell out the company for his own gain—don’t have as much going on. In a movie that, I say again, takes three hours of your life, you wonder where the hell the time has gone when you get to the end of the film and each of them have had maybe one or two short scenes to resolve their respective arcs.
A lot of that time goes to Brad Pitt being Brad Pitt. His Death—“Joe Black” is the traveling name he takes for himself in an awkward dinner scene that takes three times as long as it needs to—is a cold, bemused, childlike personage who has somehow been ushering human beings beyond the veil since the dawn of time, yet has never picked up on what peanut butter is. (He loves it! Brad Pitt sucks on a spoon for like three scenes!! I guess he just likes eating in movies.) Joe’s mystification at the human world is amusingly and bizarrely inconsistent: He’s never heard the old adage about death and taxes, but he knows exactly how to talk in Jamaican patois.
There is a subplot about Bill’s company getting yanked out from under him, about Joe and Susan falling in love, but it ends as you expect it: Bill triumphs over corporate chicanery, Joe realizes that he is actually Death and can’t have Susan, and both characters come to an acceptance of how things must be, no matter how painful. It’s nice! It just took three hours and $90 million to get there for reasons that escape all human reason.
These are all sorts of things you wonder about, inescapably, during a three-hour runtime during which most of the shots are drawn out (and every scene where Bill needs to somehow play it cool as important people ask him the perfectly reasonable question “Who is that guy we’ve never met, standing right next to you, looking like Brad Pitt?” is extremely drawn out). You wonder how a billionaire multimedia mogul is somehow a sympathetic character; you wonder why Death would pick that kind of person to show him around the world when the only sets they visit are some boardrooms and a nice house.
But mostly, you will wonder about the ending, because Meet Joe Black does not actually end after Bill’s triumphant corporate coup and acceptance of his mortality. It ends when Joe relinquishes control of the body he has snatched and lets the guy have his life back, blithely depositing him back on Earth right there with Susan. This is intended to be a happy ending, but let’s think about what awaits Mr. Not Joe Black, shall we:
His traffic death was witnessed by a couple dozen people, and is well-documented in police and insurance reports. His body, presumably, has gone missing from a New York City morgue. What is going to happen when he turns up on the same night a billionaire media mogul turns up dead? Is he going to just walk back into his life after literally dying? After, and I’m sorry to put it this way, Death Himself borrows his dick to have a fling with a girl?
Sure, you can watch these clips here. You can know, intellectually, that Brad Pitt was in a movie where he licks peanut butter off a spoon and it’s only the second most sexual thing he does in it, and that he does it after he gets hit by two cars. But unless you sit with it, unless you experience it, unless you do the reading, you can’t truly appreciate it.
That’s the beauty and the pain of life… and death.