In half the time it takes to "Meet Joe Black," many good films chart an entire life story. By contrast, this thoroughly over-elaborated whimsy dawdles in delineating one man's confrontation with mortality, which presents itself in the person of a handsome young stranger. What might have been an effective fantasy if handled with sophistication and insouciance is instead weighed down by ponderous pacing, overstuffed production values and an instance of miscasting.

In half the time it takes to “Meet Joe Black,” many good films chart an entire life story. By contrast, this thoroughly over-elaborated whimsy dawdles in delineating one man’s confrontation with mortality, which presents itself in the person of a handsome young stranger. What might have been an effective fantasy if handled with sophistication and insouciance is instead weighed down by ponderous pacing, overstuffed production values and an instance of miscasting. This first and most expensive of Universal’s four big year-end releases could do some solid midrange business on the basis of Brad Pitt’s name and the public’s seemingly endless appetite for stories relating to angels, intermediaries to the afterlife and so on, no matter how mediocre (“What Dreams May Come”). But whatever B.O. it does cannot possibly match its pretensions.

Martin Brest skated on thin ice but got away with it, at least with moviegoers, when he stretched his last film, “Scent of a Woman,” out to 157 minutes. Here, he pushes his luck too far by extending a slim conceit to a full three hours. Rarely has there been a film with so little justification for such a marathon running time; much of the problem stems from the dialogue direction, which often has the actors pausing significantly for many seconds between lines.

The uncharitable could make mileage of the issue that the film upon which “Meet Joe Black” is based, Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 Paramount release “Death Takes a Holiday,” ran just 78 minutes, except for the fact that the new picture isn’t a remake in any meaningful sense. Brest, who began mulling the project seriously more than 15 years ago, and his writers have taken just the central premise — of Death assuming human form for a few days to get a taste of what life is like, and falling in love along the way — and spun it in different, much more detailed ways.

No matter the new film’s failings, its inventions can represent only improvements, as the Leisen picture, itself adapted from a 1920s play, now comes off as deadly dull.

With his 65th birthday fast approaching, New York media tycoon William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) begins hearing a strange, disembodied voice, and shortly suffers a heart seizure while being spoken to so mysteriously. At the same time, his young physician daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani), who is halfheartedly involved with her father’s ambitious second-in-command, Drew (Jake Weber), has a memorable chance encounter in a coffee shop with a dashing young man (Brad Pitt) who, immediately after, is hit and killed by speeding cars.

In short order, the voice materializes to the mystified William in the guise of the fellow from the coffee shop. In the communications baron’s plush library, the visitor, who goes by the name of Joe Black, informs the older man, a widower whom he has chosen for his exceptional character, that he can buy some time if he will act as his guide to all things earthly.

Thus begins a peculiar relationship in which the dazzlingly blond Joe Black follows the powerful William on all his rounds. First stop is a family dinner, where Susan is understandably disconcerted by the presence of the young man who charmed her in the coffee shop, and even more unnerved by the fact that he doesn’t behave as though he were the same guy. William’s other daughter, the too-eager-to-please Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), her affable but none-too-bright husband, Quince (Jeffrey Tambor), and Drew are also curious about the newcomer.

Joe’s presence induces some polite raised eyebrows among the members of William’s corporate board, which the next day convenes to consider a mega-merger that the principled William refuses to endorse. The underhanded Drew, who has been in cahoots with the other company all along, then sets in motion an elaborate scheme by which he forces William into instant early retirement, a process spurred by the fact that the boss has privately stated that all important matters are now “up to Joe,” a man whose presence and identity no one understands.

It doesn’t help that Joe walks and talks rather like a zombie, and that he prefers peanut butter to any other food. But Susan, for one, is willing to overlook all this in her determination to figure out who the mystery man is, and sure enough maneuvers him into her arms. In line with what the young man in the coffee shop hoped for from the beginning, they fall for each other quickly and deeply, to the great consternation of William; in an instance in which father truly does know best, he demands that his daughter, whom he had earlier told to become “swept away” by love, steer clear of Joe.

After wrestling with his impending fate and coming to accept it, William tells his otherworldly emissary that he’s ready to go, to which Joe replies, “Good. After the party.” This is a cue for the final act, a black-tie birthday bash staged on the vast grounds of William’s stupendous waterfront estate. Encompassing 45 minutes of screen time, the elegant blowout provides the setting for neat resolutions of all of the film’s important narrative and thematic strands, all capped off by a gigantic fireworks display.

By taking so much time and building to the climax so methodically, Brest seems to be trying to pull off a metaphysical slow burn, one whose cumulative impact will prove moving and profound. But even if one buys the premise, the story is finally just too contrived and wispy to support heavy emotional investment.

The heart of the film can be found in Hopkins’ William Parrish, a dynamic man who has been chosen by Death for observation as the best humanity has to offer. As Hopkins plays him, with tremendous verve and sympathy, he is all this, but the character also seems impossibly idealized, truly without flaws. Never is there an indication of the ruthlessness that must have been required to get as far as he did. He is even the perfect widower, forever living in the memory of his adored wife, without a woman to replace her.

By contrast, Pitt’s Joe Black is an odd egg indeed. At times Joe looks as though he hasn’t a clue what to do or say in polite company, while at others he appropriately appears to be several steps ahead of everybody else. Looking dashing and slightly impish at times, Pitt isn’t particularly effective in the moments he must carry the screen alone or in his attempts at physical comedy. He’s better in the romantic interludes, in which Joe experiences love and sex for the first time, and best of all in his scenes with Hopkins, suggesting that he would excel in ensemble pieces cast opposite strong actors, rather than toplined alone.

Forlani makes a decidedly limited impression as the rich man’s daughter who has never before been swept away by love. In the first coffee shop scene, her character says and does nothing to make any impression on the young man, who is impressed anyway, and the tentative manner and skittish eye contact with which the actress endows Susan become tiresome.

Weber starts quietly and eventually commands singular attention as Parrish’s treacherous would-be successor and son-in-law, while Harden and Tambor more gently score in lightly comic support.

Luxuriously upholstered pic so thoroughly expresses the world of its wealthy characters that the money all but drips from the screen. If one had unlimited resources, one might certainly want to engage production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designers Aude Bronson-Howard and David C. Robinson to create one’s personal ambience, with the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to make sure everything was lit to maximum effectiveness.

Thomas Newman’s score is quite beautiful, particularly in its main theme, which possesses a ghostly echo of his father, Alfred Newman’s, exquisite title music for “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Meet Joe Black

Production

A Universal release of a City Light Films production. Produced by Martin Brest. Executive producer, Ronald L. Schwary. Co-producer, David Wally. Directed by Martin Brest. Screenplay, Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, Bo Goldman, suggested by the play "Death Takes a Holiday," written by Alberto Casella and adapted by Walter Ferris, and the motion picture screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman.

With

Joe Black/Young Man in Coffee Shop - Brad Pitt William Parrish - Anthony Hopkins Susan Parrish - Claire Forlani Drew - Jake Weber Allison - Marcia Gay Harden Quince - Jeffrey Tambor Eddie Sloane - David S. Howard Jamaican Woman - Lois Kelly-Miller
Camera (Deluxe color), Emmanuel Lubezki; editors, Joe Hutshing, Michael Tronick; music, Thomas Newman; production designer, Dante Ferretti; art director, Robert Guerra; set decorator, Leslie Bloom; costume designers, Aude Bronson-Howard, David C. Robinson; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby digital), Danny Michael; special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; associate producer, Celia Costas; assistant director, Amy Sayres; casting, Juliet Taylor, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Universal City, Oct. 30, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 180 MIN.

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