Like a piece of taffy stretched, stretched, stretched until it barely even has a shape anymore, Meet Joe Black, a meticulously gooey 2-hour-and-50-minute mystical romantic weeper, may be the most piquant example this year of a movie in which more turns out to be less. In essence, it’s a fish-out-of-water comedy, like Topper or Big, but with a woozy layer of metaphysical sentimentality. Between jokes, the characters gaze and ponder moistly, as if to inflate each scene to a level of religioso importance. Loosely based on Death Takes a Holiday, an engaging, if stagy, 1934 contraption starring Fredric March (and all of 78 minutes long), Meet Joe Black is sometimes clever and enjoyable, even touching, yet too often the film makes you feel as if you’re in Sunday school.
On the eve of his 65th birthday, Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy and miraculously benevolent New York media tycoon, is awakened in his splendid upstate mansion by shooting heart pains and by a godly, disembodied voice speaking to him from the sun-bathed dawn. The voice says yes, over and over again. Somehow, it’s not a very reassuring yes. Bill, you see, is about to be claimed by Death. But Death has a deal to make. He’s planning a once-in-an-eon visit to earth, and if Bill agrees to be his guide, he’ll postpone, you know, the deed and spend some time just hanging out, seeing what the place is like.
A widower, Bill dotes on his willowy daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani), a physician-in-training who’s about to marry her dad’s reigning young executive shark (Jake Weber). Fortunately for her, Death decides to arrive in the body of Brad Pitt, playing the brash young charmer who happened to be hitting on Susan in a coffee shop. Copper-blond gorgeous in his dark suit, he shows up at the Parrish mansion, ready for action. Introduced by Bill as ”Joe Black,” this enigmatic visitor discovers, one by one, the ephemeral joys of earth — starting with peanut butter, then cookies, then on to more profound sweets like Susan. She knows, in her heart, that her yuppie fiance is missing something, and Joe turns out to be just that thing. He’s a deep kind of guy, seductive in his very innocence. He has a subtle way of disrupting things, too. Tagging along with Bill to board meetings, Joe poses as his mysterious assistant, but his interest in the company never begins to rival his passion for peanut butter.
Hollywood’s best spirit-world fantasies have always hinged on a wifty, casual sense of the everyday. Ghost, for instance, featured a cute young dead guy communing with his girlfriend, but it anchored its magic in the spectacular stunts of ghosthood — Patrick Swayze leaping through subway trains, etc. Pitt, getting into the spirit, plays the Grim Reaper as a goofy and hapless loose-wired dreamboat. On occasion, the actor’s newborn-earthling line readings veer perilously close to the blankness of Keanu Reeves, but there’s enough of a twinkle in Pitt’s stare to let you know that he’s in on the joke. When he locks heavy-lidded eyes with the evanescent Claire Forlani, the scenes are played with Pitt as the object of desire, and that’s fine, since Forlani radiates what he doesn’t — an avid sensual hunger.
Still, why are their encounters staged with such solemnity? The stars of Titanic were allowed to stay light and fleet despite circumstances far doomier than this. Meet Joe Black has been made in a style that might be described as schmaltzy gargantuan, and the movie goes on for nearly an hour too long. Yes, most everything falls into place, but not enough happens to justify the somber monumentalism that director Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman) lavishes on this whimsical supernatural soap opera. Brest turns even the unbuttoning of clothing before a love scene into an epic art event, and he tacks on so many endings that you start praying for the afterlife. (When you finally reach the last ending, it barely even makes sense.)
Just when you’re getting fed up with all the indulgence, though, the film inevitably finds itself rescued — or, at least, kept afloat — by Anthony Hopkins, who gives a performance of extraordinary delicacy and soft-shoe wit. As Bill, he turns a simple speech about how his wife introduced him to cold lamb sandwiches into a tender Proustian reverie, and when he uncovers a backroom scheme to sell off his company, his crushed idealism fires up the screen. Meet Joe Black is really about how the dying mogul eases himself into the next world, and though Hopkins’ tone is quietly wistful, even elegiac, he plays every moment with disarming crispness. Even at his most sincere, he seems to be saying, It’s just a movie, folks. If only the people who made the movie understood that. B-