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Film review: Meet Joe Black

Published: Friday, Nov. 13 1998 9:22 a.m. MST

Despite its faults, "Titanic" had just enough plot to justify its three-hour running time. And the story behind "Ben-Hur" made for an enthralling nearly four-hour movie.

But judging from the example set by "Meet Joe Black," filmmaker Martin Brest could have made either of those earlier movies into 10-hour opuses — since he managed to stretch a 100-minute premise to three-hour length here.

What's particularly irritating is that "Meet Joe Black" does have an interesting story germ, which has made for two good movies already — 1934's "Death Takes a Holiday" and a 1971 made-for-TV remake.

"Meet Joe Black" is longer than those two movies combined.

Don't get the wrong impression. The film isn't completely unwatchable, thanks in large part to a film-stealing performance by Anthony Hopkins. Also, the reinterpretation of the story (by four credited screenwriters) is more thoughtful than you might be led to believe.

However, the subject might feel fresher if we hadn't already seen "City of Angels" (also based on an earlier, much-better film), which trod similar ground. And the snail-like pacing robs it of much-needed vitality.

Brad Pitt stars as Joe Black, a mysterious stranger who quickly disrupts the lives of media tycoon William Parrish (Hopkins) and his family.

The new houseguest reveals his secret to Parrish — that he's actually Death and has assumed the form of a recently slain man. But he has a dual purpose in coming to Parrish: Not only is he there to claim the sixtysomething businessman, he's also curious about the human experience and wants his next victim to be a guide to physical existence.

The revelation causes Parrish to reassess his life, including his relationships in business and with his daughters, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), the older perfectionist, and Susan (Claire Forlani), the younger romantic.

And while Parrish tries to ready himself for death, Joe discovers human emotions, including romantic love. Susan has mistaken Joe for the charming stranger she met in a coffee shop (the man whose body he has claimed), and has fallen for him.

From there, the story diverges from the original film, seemingly to suit the whims of Brest and the screenwriters. It's a metaphysical journey, done in a metaphorical style, but it also lacks the necessary weight and impact.

Performance-wise, Pitt is decent enough, but he can't hope to hold a candle to Hopkins, who is terrific. Nor for that matter, can the supporting cast, though both Harden and Jeffrey Tambor try their best.

However, Forlani seems too distant to be convincing, and Jake Weber is far too one-dimensional as Susan's conniving fiance.

"Meet Joe Black" is rated R for profanity (including the PG-13 rated one), simulated sex (a fairly lengthy scene, in fact), a disturbing auto-pedestrian collision and use of vulgar slang.