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Reviewed by Bob Banka
April 7, 1999


Widescreen, 1.85 : 1, Anamorphic
Dolby Digital, 5.1
180 Minutes, RSDL
Rated PG-13 1998

As the closing credits crawled up the screen at end of Martin Brest's MEET JOE BLACK, I was reminded of a wonderful exchange of dialogue in the film, AMADEUS;

Emperor Joseph II: "Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?"

Indeed, there are simply too many notes, too many chords, too many bars, in Brest's remake of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. We don't need a scalpel to trim the unnecessary scenes, we need a lawn mower. The overly long pauses between lines of dialogue are just the beginning. Entire lines about sandwiches, pastry, peanut butter, flowers, even lines about forgetting what to say in a speech, are tedious throw aways. But worse, there are entire scenes and subplots that should've hit the cutting room floor - the catering details for a 65th birthday party, a visit and conversation with a dying patient in a hospital, and an ending that doesn't know when to say WHEN!

MEET JOE BLACK is a dark comedy/love story/drama that runs 180 minutes. The 1934 film, starring Frederic March, ran only 78! One can imagine Cameron's words echoing during the pitch at Universal - SIZE DOES MATTER ! The film is all dialogue and pregnant pauses - three hours of it. I've seen non-action oriented films which ran two and a half, and three, hours, sustain such a running length, and still remain engaging, for example - NIXON, HOWARDS END, JFK, and even Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET (FOUR hours!), but these films had marvelous, ensemble casts, and intricate stories - each REQUIRING the extended running time to unravel. MEET JOE BLACK does have Anthony Hopkins - one of our greatest actors, and he's terrific here as communications mogul, William Parrish, but Brad Pitt, who plays Death - comes off more like death warmed over. He's as dull as a marble. Co-star Claire Forlani is strikingly beautiful, but she's a lightweight here in a thankless role - falling in love with a man she knows nothing about, who never gives a straight answer to her questions, and insists he must 'go away' soon, but has no explanations. Of course, we know why - he's Death, and he's got a job to do. Forlani plays an intelligent girl. She should tell Mr. GQ to get that lost lamb look off his face, and come clean - who are you, where did you come from, and why are you sleeping in my dad's house, and eating his peanut butter?

There's an interesting kernel lying under all of the subplots in MEET JOE BLACK. An angel of death takes the body of a mortal so it may learn something about what it's been stealing for millennia - life. How will it answer questions about its responsibilities, how will a dispassionate entity react when confronted by human emotions like love, joy, anger, and sadness? How will it leave once it's seen how wonderful life can be? How will it ever cast its black hand over a living being again? The portions of the script that deal with these questions, either directly, or indirectly, are the most engaging. Some of the conversations between Hopkins and Pitt or interesting, and you find yourself hanging on words, and waiting for replies. Some of the humor works in the film as well. For example, when a board member at Parrish's company says a take-over by a rival company is as certain as 'death and taxes' which strikes Death as odd. Taxes? Certain? The quirky way Pitt moves as Death in a mortal's body brings a few chuckles as well, until you realize it's the grim reaper that looks so darn cute.

Next its unreasonable length, and Pitt's marshmallow performance, MEET JOE BLACK's biggest problem is its ending which goes on far too long, with too many fireworks, too many parting words, too many last looks, and, well ... too many notes.


Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a communications mogul, is about to celebrate his 65th birthday. His company is also in the middle of a deal with a rival that's looking to buy him out. With tension and anxiety riding so high, Parrish wakes up in the middle of the night with pains in his left arm. He's also hearing a voice - his own, which keeps saying to him... Yes, Yes! The answer to your question is, Yes!

The following day, Bill experiences more violent pains, now in his chest, and that evening he's visited by Death - in a mortal's body (Brad Pitt). We recognize the body since, earlier that day, the mortal who occupied it had a lovely chat with Susan (Claire Forlani), Parrish's beautiful daughter, in a coffee shop. 'Lighting struck,' and the two fell for each other, but they parted as strangers. The young man was then 'taken' by the grim reaper - who needed a body. Death makes a deal with Parrish - as long as he continues to teach him about life, Death will allow him to live and get his affairs in order. But eventually, they'll both have to leave this world.

Susan recognizes Death, who's introduced as Joe Black, at the dinner table, but 'Joe' has never seen her before. This upsets her, since she really liked the young man she had coffee with. Over the next few days, Joe follows Parrish like a shadow - tailing him everywhere, even into board meetings at the office. This prompts angry stares from Drew (Jake Weber), the bosses right hand man. Drew is also Susan's significant other, and he's seen how she looks at the new, dapper dude.

Eventually, Joe and Susan fall in love. Parrish resents Death's closing in on his daughter, and makes it clear that he won't stand for it. What father would? But Joe continues his fling with the girl. Drew has made plans with the folks trying to consume Parrish's company. He calls a secret meeting of the board, and arranges for Parrish's termination. The tycoon has lost his company, his daughter is sleeping with Death, and his own life will end any day now. Death even tells him that he plans on taking Susan along when he leaves this world. Talk about bad luck!

On the night of the big birthday bash, Parrish is determined to fix all of his problems, and leave this world a happy man - knowing that his company is in safe hands, and that his daughter will live a long and happy life.


This is a 1:85 : 1, anamorphic transfer. There are some problems to note. A scene early in the film demonstrates most of the negatives. As Parrish and his advisors stroll out onto the 'country' estate toward the helipad, the bright sunlight glares down - too bright. Colors and whites are 'blooming' and look unnatural. Flesh tones are overly orange and red and the images are soft. This is not the case in all exteriors, however the sunnier ones at this location do exhibit the problem.

The instances of 'softness' occur on a number of occasions, regardless of lighting key, but primarily during exteriors, and a few brighter interiors. During some full shots, enough detail is obscured to make it challenging to see expressions on characters' faces.

During many scenes, we noted a red 'halo-ing,' or edge around characters' faces. This occurs in high and medium key-lit scenes, but not in dimmer lighting. In fact, the darker scenes, particularly the finale at the birthday bash, looks excellent. But during much of the rest of the film we were distracted by the problems noted above. Except for the few very bright exteriors, colors look rich and vivid, with no bleeding between fields. We noted no 'grain' or alaizing in the picture, and no 'shimmer' or 'ringing' from digital over-enhancement.

Throughout the presentation, blacks look deep and solid. During all but the brightest scenes, contrast and shadow detail are good. There are no distracting scars, scratches, or other blemishes on the print. In general, we were disappointed in Universal's transfer.


The packaging states that this is a Dolby Digital, 5.1 mix. However, as best as we can tell, it is actually only a 5.0 mix - that is, there is no signal directed to the .1 FX channel. We only caught this mistake after double checking - thanks to the alert ears of one of our loyal readers who also happens to work at a theater, and could recall the mix as presented during release.

The forward soundstage is wide and fairly deep, with good panning and sound effects placement. This film is almost entirely dialogue driven, so there's little to get the woofer cones flexing. Voices sound natural and are well integrated across the front three speakers.

Ambient sounds can be heard on occasion from the surrounds - a chopper's rotors, city traffic, and so on. However, there's very little on the track to call for split surround effects. Any lower tones to be heard, for example during the fireworks display in the last reel, are fielded by the front left and right speakers since the .1 FX channel is dormant.

Thomas Newman's score is nicely recorded and rises up aggressively from all positions. This is probably the highlight of the soundtrack. The music covers a wide dynamic range, including some lower tones, and can be heard with as much vigor from the surrounds as from the forward stage. It's a very lyrical score which compliments the film's more emotionally charged moments nicely.


Scene access menu with links to 18 chapters in the film
'Spotlight On Location' featurette, with comments from cast and director (FF, stereo)
Production notes
Cast and film-maker bios and filmos
Theatrical trailer (1.85 : 1, stereo)
Alternate French language track (Dolby Surround)
English closed captions

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