Rated PG-13 - Running time: 3:00 - Released 11/13/98

The story of Meet Joe Black, penned by Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno and based on the 1934 classic Death Takes A Holiday, is not epic in any way. The cast is basically made up of 6 people, the action takes place within a 2-week period set in the present, and apart from the final half hour, there are really no major visuals. But like Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, Meet Joe Black is cursed with a self-indulgent director who doesn't know how to cut. There is absolutely no reason for it to be three hours long.

Martin Brest, who has directed several excellent films in the past [Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Scent of a Woman (1992)], must have misplaced his scissors, but the length of his film is not its only fault. Excellent performances by Anthony Hopkins and Clair Forlani are foiled by a rather style-less job by Brad Pitt, and Jake Weber's stereotyped villain is not human enough to believe.

When Death (Pitt) comes to collect his latest package, newspaper CEO Bill Parrish (Hopkins), he decides to hang around awhile and sample some of the earthly pleasures he's heard so much about. Choosing a plain tan suit over the usual scythe and black cloak, he steals some guy's body and adopts the moniker "Joe Black." He chose Parrish as his guide because of his leadership qualities, but he didn't realize he also had a daughter who is both beautiful (in a big-nosed, Barbra Streisand sort of way) and intelligent. Susan (Forlani) is a doctor-in-residence at the local hospital. Bill also has another daughter, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), who is busy planning a spectacular party for her dad's 65th birthday. Allison's affable husband Quince (Jeffrey Tambor) and Susan's fiancé Drew (Weber) are both on the board of directors for Bill's multimillion-dollar company, and Drew, a cutthroat businessman, is Bill's closest aide.

But the sudden appearance of Joe Black takes everyone by surprise, especially Susan, who had just met the body's former owner that morning at a coffee shop. She had been charmed by the mystery man's polite candor about love and commitment, and felt romantic pangs that emphasized her dissatisfaction with Drew. Joe has no recollection of the coffee shop meeting, of course, but is intrigued nonetheless. Drew first welcomes Joe as a friend of Bill's, but soon grows irritated by Joe's apparent influence on his boss and girlfriend. But what really ticks him off is when Bill suddenly cancels Drew's plans to merge the company with another, larger corporation. Thinking Bill has surrendered control of the business to this mysterious visitor, he engineers a hostile takeover, using the unwitting Quince as a tool.

Meanwhile, Joe is basically just enjoying all the enjoyable aspects of being human, from eating peanut butter to making love. The one he's making love to is, of course, Susan, who has fallen completely head over heels for a man who must leave Earth in just a few days.

It is unfortunate that such an enigmatic role was given to Pitt, who is clearly not up to the task. His interpretation is more robotic than wondrous; he doesn't seem to really feel the things he's supposed to be so thrilled by. And up against Hopkins and Forlani he looks especially wooden. The film's ending is a terrible cop-out on the part of the writers. Apart from the obvious breaking of natural law, it emphasizes that Susan's love for this man is based primarily on his looks.

Meet Joe Black is a film with potential that could have been helped immeasurably by being cut to 2 hours. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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