In naming the pseudo-remake of the 1934 Fredric March vehicle "Death Takes a Holiday," director and producer Martin Brest's production company hit upon the vacuous title "Meet Joe Black." Actually, "Death Overstays His Welcome" would have been more apropos for this overlong romantic fantasy.
Clocking in at three hours (more than twice the time it took director Mitchell Leisen to tell the similar story in 1934), "Meet Joe Black" ploddingly recounts the personification of death in the form of a blond hunk (Brad Pitt), who was obviously cast in the role for the swoon factor.
Days before his 65th birthday, communications mogul William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) suffers a sharp pain in his arm and begins to hear an otherworldly voice. Within hours, the pain teeters on the verge of a full-fledged heart attack and the voice becomes even more predominant.
While Parrish is suffering, a different matter of the heart affects his youngest daughter (Claire Forlani). As she breakfasts in a New York coffee shop, Susan, who is unhappily romantically involved with Drew (Jake Weber), her father's second-in-command, has a chance encounter with a young lawyer played by Pitt. In typical Hollywood fashion, Susan is instantly smitten with the handsome stranger.
But omnipotent Death latches on to this chance meeting as his way of taking human form. As Pitt's character leaves the coffee shop, he is hit by not one but two cars in a jarring and gruesome scene, sharply at odds with the whimsical nature the film has so far established.
During dinner that same night, Parrish is summoned to his study by the mysterious voice who has now assumed the body of the hit-and-run victim. Death, in the guise of Pitt, offers an extension on Parrish's life if he will in turn give him a guided tour of all things earthly. And so Death assumes the identity of fictional Joe Black and begins to learn the ways of life and love with the perplexed Susan -- she recognizes him from their earlier encounter but instinctively knows he's not the same man.
Any more divulgence of the meandering plot would make this review as lengthy and tedious as "Meet Joe Black" becomes in the next two and a half hours. Suffice it to say that Death learns to love and to fornicate. And finally he claims Parrish, but not before he enjoys his 65th birthday bash.
In this fish-out-of-water role, Pitt starts out with a stiff and awkward physicalization and an equally stilted speech pattern. Director Brest quickly gets Pitt out of this mode, but throughout the rest of the film Pitt makes several convoluted character shifts -- one minute he's a commanding presence, the next he's as naïve as a child.
As the recipient of the kiss of Death, Forlani possesses extreme beauty and a sensual chemistry with Pitt, but more often then not her scenes bog the film down. Brest seems intent on focusing on her every change in expression, often extending scenes for no apparent reason other than to watch the babe emote.
Hopkins provides a solid interpretation of media-mogul Parrish, but the complexities of the character are never completely realized by the script.
"Meet Joe Black" aspires to the heights of another supernatural remake, Warren Beatty's charming "Heaven Can Wait." But where that inspired film reached perfect levels of romantic fantasy, comedic high jinks and genuine poignancy, "Meet Joe Black" tortuously plods along and ultimately ends up dead on arrival.