William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is a billionaire businessman on the brink of his 65th birthday. He has built a huge media empire, and raised two beautiful daughters, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden) and Susan (Claire Forlani). William has been able to negotiate his way out of many tough spots...but he has suddenly begun fearing his own mortality, the one situation he won't be able to talk his way out of.
And he has good reason to fear, for Death himself is stalking him. However, Death has a deal to make. Death has taken possession of a man who has recently died (Brad Pitt), and wants William to be his guide in a holiday among the living. In return, William gets to live a few extra days. Of course, he agrees.
Death, under the human name of "Joe Black", gets to experience life as a complete innocent. He never before has experienced the simple pleasures of a springy matress or peanut butter. And he's not quite compared for the more complex pleasures when he and Susan fall in love. But, is their affair doomed to an early demise?
At nearly three hours in length, Meet Joe Black is a little bit on the leisurely side, though it never gets boringly lengthy. Instead, the film gets a chance to develop some nicely textured characters and situations. You get to soak in and enjoy the atmosphere, rather than being hurriedly rushed through it.
The romantic angle works well, though, surprisingly, the interactions between Joe Black and William Parrish are more interesting than those with his daughter. This is most likely due to Anthony Hopkins, who once again displays his superb acting skills. William is a desperate man who has had a seemingly ideal life, and doesn't want to let it go. By contrast, Claire Forlani is merely the romantic interest. She gets to show Joe the ropes of love, but is hardly as interesting a character.
As Joe Black, Brad Pitt seems a bit stilted. Granted, he's supposed to be out-of-place, but the overly formal technique used by Pitt begins to distract from the role. Still, he is able to hold his own, and over the course of the three hours, his character begins to grow on you.
The main character who seems out of place here is Drew (Jake Weber), an ambitious executive in Williams' company who is Joe Black's main rival for Susan's affections. Weber plays the character with a hammy relish reminiscent of Snidley Whiplash. This cartoonish foil an aberration in a film filled many more dimensional characters.
The supernatural elements of the film are handled murkily, but never distractingly so. We never learn what is the exact nature of Death, or why he's never done something like this before. It actually gets a bit creepy when Death talks to the dying in their own voices/accents. (His initial conversations with Hopkins sound shockingly like Hannibal Lecter...) And the ultimate resolution to one of the film's supernatural problems seems, well, somewhat superficial.
Still, even with the film's length, it was a pleasant time at the movies, something you wouldn't necessarily expect from a film about Death...but one which Meet Joe Black delivers anyhow.
[PG-13 - an accident scene, some sexuality and brief strong language] (Universal)