A little known, and even less fondly remembered romantic/melodrama, Death Takes A Holiday (1934) was the inspiration behind Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black (1998); a monumentally overblown, undeniably glossy looking, but glacially slow moving remake co-starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. The two had previously worked together on Legends of the Fall (1994). Perhaps with box office cache firmly in mind, and weary of how a three hour epic about love transcending time and space could so easily be seen as self-indulgent tripe, Brest chose instead to surround his two stars with a winning supporting cast that included Marcia Gay Harden, Claire Forlani, Jeffrey Tambor and Jake Weber – all of them skilled thespians.
The one thing Brest hadn’t counted on was a thoroughly leaden performance by Pitt, in the dual role as the young nameless man Forlani’s Susan Parrish meets inside a local coffee shop, and ‘Joe’ – actually ‘Death’ - masquerading in human form in the hopes of gleaning all it can from the foreign concept of ‘life’. Alas it proved everything, with Pitt so wooden and ill at ease as ‘Joe’ that he all but diffused what little dramatic arch remained in the story.
The even greater tragedy of the exercise is that there was so much to admire throughout the film, from the aforementioned supporting cast’s believable star turns to Emmanuel Lubezki’s gleaming cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design, that it all might have clung together rather nicely if not for the paralytic screenplay by Bo Goldman and Kevin Wade that seems incapable of tying together any of the loose ends without creating more loopholes along the way.
Plot wise, we entered the moneyed world of communications mogul, William ‘Bill’ Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a beloved figure about to celebrate his 65th birthday in lavish style on his Long Island estate, thanks to the meticulous nattering of his eldest daughter, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), who is also married one of Parrish Communication’s executives, Quince (Jeffrey Tambor). Allison desperately craves her father’s affections. But recently Bill has been distracted by a takeover that threatens to swallow up his life’s work. Moreover, Bill has convinced himself that another member of his executive team, Drew (Jake Webber) is his fair-haired boy to stop this corporate cannibalization.
Bill’s younger daughter, and his favourite – Susan (Claire Forlani) - is a doctor working in New York City. She too has taken an interest in Drew…well, sort of. When Bill asks Susan about her intensions towards Drew he receives a rather cryptic and dispassionate reply, prompting Bill to impart some fatherly advice that he hopes Susan will choose to live by: that life is meaningless without true love. Lightning should strike.
A short while later Susan meets her romantic ideal (Brad Pitt) at a coffee shop across the street from the hospital. New to the city, this nameless young man engages Susan in some meaningful conversation about relationships that ends with “Who knows? Lightning could strike.” Remembering her father’s words, Susan nervously parts company, secretly hoping to muster up enough guts to ask this enigmatic stranger out on a date. Regrettably, before this can happen, the man is fatally struck down in a horrific car accident without Susan’s knowledge.
A short while later the man, whose body has actually been stolen by Death, shows up at William’s lavish penthouse. Death reveals to Bill that his time on earth is limited and that the best either of them can hope for is a few days respite before the inevitable. Death wishes to learn about life and has chosen Bill as his guide. To shield his family from the true identity of this stranger, Bill rechristens Death as Joe Black – a new member of his inner business circle that immediately rubs Drew the wrong way.
But Death is unprepared for the depth of Drew’s human jealousy, and more confused by Susan’s obvious attraction to him, unable to react to her as the young man whose body its stolen would have. This disconnect between the man she thought she knew and the one currently occupying a place inside her father’s home, understandably leaves Susan feeling slightly jilted. Nevertheless, she is determined to pursue Joe for herself.
Joe explains to Bill that should he chose to expose the truth about him to Susan he – Death – will have no choice but to claim them both into the underworld. In the meantime, Bill’s attentions are diverted by a new threat to his company. It seems Drew is an inside man for the competition, who has seized this particular moment to attempt a hostile corporate takeover of Parrish Communications with himself as the newly appointed Chairman of the Board. Inadvertently, Drew has gained access to highly secret corporate files thanks to Quince’s ineptitude.
Emotionally torn by his blunder, Quince confides in Joe what has happened and Joe takes it upon himself to set things right for the future before claiming Bill’s life. He confronts Drew in Bill’s presence, and with the entire board of directors listening in on an open phone line. Cocky, Drew proudly confesses that no one will ever be able to figure out his treason against the company. The board begs to differ and Bill fires Drew on the spot, thereby thwarting the takeover bid and keeping Parrish Communications in his family.
Now Bill’s concern shifts to what will become of Susan. She has obviously fallen for Joe. The wrinkle herein is that Death has also discovered love and has decided to take Susan with them to the underworld. Bill attempts to manage the situation; then pleads with Death to reconsider this decision.
It is the eve of Bill’s elaborate 65th birthday party and Joe agrees to allow him this one last hurrah before crossing over to the other side. At the party, Bill and Allison reconcile their differences. Knowing that Susan has always been the favoured daughter, Allison tells her father, “Never mind about favourites. The point is, you’ve always been mine.” The two share an intimate tearful moment before Bill takes to the dance floor with Susan. He tells her not to worry about the future or him. That everything will be alright if she retains her optimism and looks forward rather than back. This, she agrees to do, despite having been asked earlier to give up Joe.
To Death’s credit, Joe also agrees to leave Susan behind. As fireworks explode overhead, Bill walks valiantly at Death’s side, their shadows vanishing beyond a footbridge on the property as Susan looks on. But only a few moments later, Joe reappears to Susan. Or has he? No. In fact, Death has decided to give back the young man Susan first met inside the coffee shop. The two are reunited with the presumption that they will go forward and become husband and wife.
This last act is what really sold Meet Joe Black for me. It is impossible not to develop an emotional lump in the throat as this lavish party sequence unfolds. For once the screenplay allows the raw human center of the piece to shine through. We get a meaningful speech from Bill to his guests in which he muses how the years have flown by.
We experience the reunion and re-strengthening of the Parrish familial bonds through Bill’s love of his children and their obvious reciprocation of that love. And most satisfying of all, we get a superbly dramatic underscoring by Thomas Newman that at once evokes the majesty of life’s most precious moments with the finality we must all eventually face someday. For once, the pieces in this intricate puzzle fit so poignantly together that they yield a moment of pure and thoroughly satisfying movie magic.
If only the rest of Meet Joe Black had lived up to this last half hour it might have been a very fine and enduring piece of cinema art. Regrettably, the first two thirds desperately struggle to find their dramatic moments. Once Death enters the room as Joe the narrative comes to a screeching halt with too many languishing misfires. It takes too long for Joe to find his way in the human world. There’s too much contemplation of basic concepts about life that have no pertinence or place within the central theme and plot.
Joe’s musing over Drew’s claim, that in life only ‘death and taxes’ are assured commodities, is excruciatingly overplayed, as is Susan’s seduction of Joe that inadvertently introduces Death to the pleasures of the flesh. And then there is an utterly pointless sequence in which Joe, visiting the hospital to see Susan, is exposed by a Jamaican woman (Lois Kelly-Miller) who clearly recognizes him as Death and believes that he has come to claim her. In a later scene, Joe does put this woman out of her pain and physical suffrage in a sequence meant to illustrate how Death has changed its view on life and the living, to recognize the sadness of losing someone.
These scenes might have been more affecting had Brad Pitt not taken the route of portraying Death as an utterly cold monolith. But the faults in his performance are only partly to blame. The screenplay is woefully at a loss to provide the actor with any sort of witticisms or even a hint of other worldly charm to play off. Together, these shortcomings rob what is essentially the film’s central performance – the linchpin of the story. As such, the audience is forced to deflect its curiosities onto the Parrish clan, who are mostly a house divided until the aforementioned final act. This is indeed a pity, because what we’re left with then is an elegant entertainment minus its core; a film that looks very fine – and, at times even rises to the occasion of entertaining us – only to slink back into the mire of that stately elegance without leaving any sort of lasting impression once the houselights have come back up.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray release is bare bones and seems to have been derived from the same flawed digital elements used in the DVD mastering from some years ago. Everything tightens up in this 1080p transfer and colours really pop. But the edge effects that plagued the DVD are still present on the Blu-ray, particularly in long shots of the New York skyline or strong linear lines in cornices and mouldings inside the Parrish Long Island mansion (actually Adrich Mansion in Rhode Island). The film has an appropriate texture of grain. Less discerning eyes will excuse the edge effects, but they are present, making for a less than perfect visual presentation.
The audio has been remastered to 5.1 DTS with dialogue sounding as crisp as ever and Thomas Newman’s score soaring to new heights. Good stuff here. This offering jettisons ‘Death Takes A Holiday’ from its supplements. The 1934 movie was an extra on Universal’s Ultimate Edition of Meet Joe Black on DVD. Universal retains the Martin Brest audio commentary, as well as the very short making of featurette and montage of still photographs, plus the original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)