Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween Retro Reel Review: Meet Joe Black is "A Whisper of a Thrill"

Something wicked this way comes - Brad Pitt takes a turn playing Death 
Meet Joe Black, by every conventional critic wisdom, should not be a good movie. Nothing short of a sweeping epic should be three hours long, it is glacially paced, and truth be told, not a whole lot happens. It centers around the lives of people that have more money than I will ever have, and has cornball written all over it. And yet, it is hypnotic; mesmerizing - and two hours in, I found myself unable to look away. Why?

Loosely based on the 1934 (and far more light-hearted) film Death Takes a Holiday, an impossibly young Brad Pitt plays Death, who has come for William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a communications tycoon who is just about to turn 65. Death makes a deal with William, saying that he will let him live until his birthday if he acts as Death's guide into the world of humans. Parrish, not having much of a choice, agrees to the deal. When Death insists upon meeting his family and business associates, William is forced to come up with a code name - Joe Black. Joe slowly infiltrates himself into every area of William's life - including his daughter Susan (Claire Forlani).

What comes next is a great deal of meaningful glances, gorgeous cinematography, and some seriously awkward moments. Pitt does an admirable job acting like someone who is not used to being in a human body. He stares too long with those uncanny blue eyes, has stilted movements, and - as is only appropriate for Death - makes people uncomfortable with his presence. There's a solemnity Pitt brings to the role that belies his young age at the time of this movie. Watching Hopkins and Pitt in a scene together is like watching two great lions trying to outdo each other in the ring - they both have such a powerful presence in and of themselves that the lush scenery they are surrounded with almost feels like overkill (no pun intended). It is directed by Martin Brest, who is also known for Scent of a Woman, one of my top 10 favorite films of all time. If there's one thing Brest loves more than anything it is human interaction. How do people relate to one another, and why? Brest is a genius at bringing out the best in his actors, and combined with a thoughtful screenplay, what they don't say to one another is as equally important as what they do say. Brest teams up once again with Thomas Newman (who adores clarinet solos, mandolins, and minor keys) to compose one helluva score for Meet Joe Black that should be counted in the cast list due to his haunting themes doing most of the talking during the several scenes of extended silences. FUN FACT: Thomas Newman also composed the music for Road to Perdition - also on my top 10 list. His work is always haunting, sweeping, and unforgettable.

It is no mistake the three central characters - Parrish, Susan, and Joe - are never in the same frame for very long. The characters are quite literally having their own personal experiences with Death; and those experiences cannot easily be shared in the same physical space. (MINOR SPOILER) I could write a whole separate blog post about the sex scene between Susan and Joe, and all the allegories that could be made to the idea of "the little death" as a euphemism for an orgasm, and the irony surrounding Death experiencing an act, at its basest function, being used to create life. While some may find the whole scene off-putting, for me it seemed to grow organically from the emotional intensity of the writing - and let's face it, Pitt is easy on the eyes!

 Hopkins and Forlani share a father/daughter dance
The film is marketed to be a romance, but it is actually a cleverly disguised serious commentary about the relationship between fathers and daughters, and coping with the hard truth we all must face - our parents will die someday. I am very close to my father and he is about the age of William Parrish in this film. I found a catch in my throat during the scenes with Susan and William, talking about living life to the fullest, and never settling for less. There's also a touching moment when William comes to terms with his overbearing eldest daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), who knows on some level Susan has always been the apple of his eye. In a great piece of script, she says, "I've felt loved, and that's all that matters. So, never mind favorites. You're allowed to have one. The point is, you've been mine."

Not that Joe Black is without its flaws. There's a somewhat glossed over company scandal kerfuffle headed by Susan's boring ex that seems pasted in. A schlocky meet-cute scene in a coffee shop. Despite two hours of quotes about making the most of life, William Parrish spends a great deal of time in his office, Gatsby-esque, before joining the swinging birthday party thrown just for him. The film tries to end itself about five times, and eventually resolves in the best bittersweet conclusion that even allows Death to have one of the most human of experiences - coping with loss, and thus, coping with his very existence.

This is not a film for everyone. It takes a great deal of patience and a viewer as interested as Joe in its exquisite scrutiny of the human experience and all its ups and downs. But it does help us to pause and think about our finite existence and remind us that sometimes the meaningful moments in our lives don't always arrive in big bangs, but often in soft whispers and quiet embraces.

Jackaroo sez: More than a remake, it takes an idea and creates something wholly original. Despite its slow pacing and lengthy run time, it is a thoughtful, meditative scrutiny on what it means to be human.