Disclaimer: Obvious spoilers for the film “Meet Joe Black” below. Also, if this is your favorite movie, that’s cool, but maybe you won’t want to read this blog?
Would you believe me if I said that I wanted to like this movie?
I remember reading the synopsis for this film years ago and thinking, “Oh my God. The human manifestation of Death falls in love with a pretty lady. That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard and if I don’t watch this movie immediately then I will be meeting Death way sooner than I should.”
Then I saw that the runtime for this film was three hours, and I was like, absolutely not. I refuse to watch a movie over two hours long, especially if that movie does not have an intermission. If a director is concerned that they will not be able to tell their full story if limited to two hours, then I think they should have adapted their story as a miniseries. And yes, for the record, I include the movie “Titanic” in the list of movies that should have been miniseries if they were going to be so damn long.
One of the reasons why I’m such a stickler about a movie’s time limit is because it has to do with an underrated aspect of filmmaking: editing. I think editing is the most crucial part of filmmaking, and clever editing can salvage almost any film. If you don’t believe me, then check out these three examples that show the importance of editing:
Here’s the story: Bill Parrish, a millionaire media mogul, played by Anthony Hopkins, is approaching his 65th birthday. Death, played by a young and cute Brad Pitt, tells Bill that he will postpone the reaping because he wants to take a little vacation on Earth, with Bill as his guide. Bill obviously has no choice in the matter and complies. Death assumes the pseudonym “Joe Black” and begins experiencing all life has to offer, like attending Board Meetings with Bill and eating peanut butter. He also develops a passionate romance with Susan, an internal medicine resident, and Bill’s younger daughter, played by Claire Forlani. Bill has a lot on his mind because, in addition to the whole death thing, his crappy protégé Drew conspires to push Bill out as chairman of the company.
I knew “Meet Joe Black” had mixed, if not outright negative, reviews, but I wanted to see the film myself and draw my own conclusion. Although I often agree with the critical consensus, I also think that critics will punish a movie unfairly for not conforming to their idea of what the movie should be instead of accepting it for what it is. Or the critics will complain about an actor’s performance, but I think that an actor’s performance depends on the screenplay and direction. Also, I think “acting” is incredibly subjective.
For example, some critics were not fond of Brad Pitt’s performance in the film. However, I found his performance magnetic, especially in scenes with Claire Forlani. The scenes between Susan and Joe were the most compelling as the two characters are clearly drawn to each other. Although Susan doesn’t know Joe or understand the nature of his relationship with her father, she’s attracted to him despite this mystery. Or maybe, just possibly, because of it.
The idea of Death assuming a human form and falling in love with a human woman is intriguing, and I would argue that the love story between Susan and Joe is the best part of the movie. It’s why I watched the movie. However, after subjecting myself to three hours of Bill Parrish’s business drama, I feel like I must tell you the love story is the only reason to watch “Meet Joe Black.”
Dear readers, there is not nearly enough plot in “Meet Joe Black” to justify its three-hour runtime. There are scenes in this film that are excruciating to sit through because they are so boring. There is a cut of “Meet Joe Black” that was condensed to about two hours to be shown on planes and TV. It removed most of the drama involving Bill’s media company, which, frankly, thank God because those scenes were the film equivalent of the air inside a lay’s chip bag.
For some reason, the writers and director seemed to think that the audience would really care about Bill’s media company. The big conflict is that Bill is opposed to a merger with another company, but Drew secretly wants to see the merger through because he’ll make a ton of money. Bill claims that the other company is evil or something like that, but we never see this evil company on screen, so we have to take his word for it. The TV/Airplane version removed some of this content to make a shorter film suitable for airing on flights, and Brest was so butthurt over the edits that he disowned this version of the film.
Though it wasn’t just the obscenely long run time that made this movie difficult to enjoy. The film also suffered from clear “this was written by a man” syndrome, particularly regarding the only notable female characters: Bill’s daughters, Susan and Allison.
I call characters like Susan and Allison the “Daddy’s Girl.” These underwritten female characters are often defined almost entirely by their relationship with their father. The female character in question will be in her 20s or even older, yet she still retains the starry-eyed wonder of her father you’re more likely to see in young children. This adult woman will still unquestionably listen to her father’s advice and work tirelessly to gain his approval, and in return, she feels loved and validated. Or something like that.
If you need another example of this kind of character, think of Pam from “Meet the Parents.” Even though her boyfriend, Greg, is a kind man, Pam does almost nothing to prevent her father, retired CIA Agent Jack, from outright abusing Greg. Although most audiences seemed to love the film for its wacky premise, I remember watching it and being disgusted with Jack, a sexist anti-Semite, but especially with Pam, for standing idly by as the man she “loved” was subjected to constant harassment.
At best, the “Daddy’s Girl” character is lazy writing based on outdated stereotypes, and some of those stereotypes are present in this film. Susan and Allison, played by Marcia Gay Harden, worship the ground their father walks on. Allison’s entire plot in the film revolves around her trying to plan the most elaborate 65th birthday party of all time. Her big speech at the movie’s end basically has her saying, “I know you love me, but Susan is your favorite child, and I’m cool with it because you’re so great.” Marcia Gay Harden does her best to sell this speech, but do you honestly know any woman who would tell her father something like this? This speech is posited as a beautiful moment between a father and his not-favorite daughter, who, after spending an entire movie putting together a beautiful party for him, confesses that she’s always known he loved her sister more?
Have you ever met a human being like this? It’s one thing to admit that your parents and your sibling have a special bond, but it’s entirely another for such blatant favoritism to be presented as acceptable. The purpose of this speech, and the entire film, seems to be to set up Bill Parrish as one of the greatest guys who’s ever lived. He’s so great that Death itself wants to hang out with him and see what life has to offer from his perspective.
While Anthony Hopkins is a skilled performer, there’s only so much he can do with a bad script. Considering that the most interesting element of the movie is the love story between Susan and Joe, it seems ridiculous that the film wastes so much time trying to tell us about the awesomeness that is Bill Parrish. And don’t get me wrong, he seems like a decent guy. As decent as a 90’s media mogul could be.
Now, I don’t like to criticize movies without at least offering alternatives for how I would improve them. So here are a few of my ideas for improving the massive CVS receipt of the film that is “Meet Joe Black”:
Suggestion 1: Cut 1/3 of the screenplay. I’m not applying this only to scenes dealing with Bill’s business but to the many others that dragged as if weighed down by the script’s self-importance. For example, during the scene where Bill first introduces Death to his family, we see him struggle for a name for the character. The duration and content of this scene add so little to the movie that it could have easily been replaced by Anthony Hopkins saying, “Um, meet… Joe…. Black.” Boom, concise. You’re welcome.
Suggestion 2: If Bill is such a principled man and expects that to trickle down into his business practices, it would have been nice to see that shown in the movie. His business was a big deal, but I didn’t even know what it did. Make TV or something? If he was so ethical and the other company so unethical, show it. Maybe show the other media company pushing for a reality show version of “The Hunger Games.”
Suggestion 3: Make Drew less of a worm. The actor who plays him is obviously a villain from the moment he steps on the screen. He’s little more than a 90’s disposable love interest about to be displaced by Death of all people. Even Drew’s boss, his supposed biggest supporter, pressures Susan to date someone else. That’s pathetic. If Drew were a more sympathetic character, the conflict between him and Bill would have been more interesting.
Suggestion 4: Give Susan a personality. What does she like to do when she’s not hanging out with her dad? Did she really not know that Drew was a douche? This movie came out a few months after “City of Angels,” and Susan feels a bit like a less-defined version of Meg Ryan’s character (a doctor who falls in love with a celestial being and ditches her human boyfriend for that sweet, sweet metaphysical lovin’). My suggestion would be to play up the warmth between her and her sister, thus showing just a little more clearly why this family is so closely knit.
Suggestion 5: Joe Black should try a fluffernutter. He liked peanut butter a lot, and I think he’d like one of those.
“Meet Joe Black” wasn’t the film for me, but die-hard fantasy romance fans might love it. I enjoyed it mostly because it satisfied my curiosity, but beyond that, this film wasn’t for me. So maybe you’ll feel differently.