Cinema: Dead men don't snog starlets
Sunday 17 January 1999
It could only have been a matter of time, I suppose, before Hollywood got round to putting the feelgood factor into death. And be assured, you will come away from Meet Joe Black with a tear in your eye, a spring in your step, and a tingle in your so-far still-beating heart at the prospect of meeting your maker. This is good: death, along with birth, is the most exciting thing you will ever do, If once the idea of such a solitary adventure terrorised you, now you can relax at the prospect of shuffling off your mortal coil in the amiable and comely company of Brad Pitt.
Joe Black is the nom de guerre of Death, who, being something of a workaholic, badly needs a vacation. A charming young man chats up the very beautiful but entirely drippy Susan (Claire Forlani) in a coffee bar and is run over in a moment of absent-minded admiration by a passing car - so Death borrows his muscle-rippling form. Well, you would, wouldn't you? Why spoil a much-deserved holiday by embodying yourself as a bag lady or a janitor?
In the same way, if you want a guided tour of the world it is your job to deprive people of, best choose a highly principled media tycoon with a happy family, an art collection to - as it were - die for, an indoor swimming pool, and the very same gorgeous Susan for a daughter whom your late body met earlier that morning. Joe Black, aka Death in the form of Brad Pitt, makes a reverse-Faustian deal with mogul Anthony Hopkins, whose heart has been lately fibrillating nastily, that he will continue to live for as long as he manages to keep his unwelcome visitor interested and informed about the pleasures of life.
In the hands of an old master of the screwball comedy, this conceit would have been realised with a featherweightness of touch and sparkling speed. But this is modern Hollywood. Three hours and one minute is required to hammer home the bittersweet irony that all flesh is dust, and what a person makes of their life is all that will be left behind. No point is left unrepeated, no kiss is fleeting, no understanding comes without an achingly slow build-up of realisation and the sweeping chords of massed violins. But then, director Martin Brest also made Scent of a Woman, which transformed other aspects of life's little uglinesses into a catharsis of mounting rehabilitation and romance.
But on the other hand, Brest is also a smart, sophisticated movie-maker who appreciates the value of the acidulous amid the syrupy, and there is some fun to be had on the way to the soaring and uplifting finale. It is quite gratifying to discover that Death does not know how to knot a tie, and that not even all eternity is worth a damn compared to a spoonful of peanut butter. Brad Pitt, whom I believe to be the result of another Faustian compact between Robert Redford and the Devil (have you ever seen them in the same film?) plays Death as an inquisitive naif, a watchful noble savage tiptoeing into the world of complex human relations. His blank good looks and limpid blue eyes offer a surprisingly effective variation on the more usual depiction of Death as a hooded grim reaper or a bag of jangly bones, but manage at the same time to seem quite ominously and appropriately bland enough for the job. Pitt is Death as Peter Pan.
Anthony Hopkins, of course, can do Bill Parrish (a kind of Ted Turner with European good taste) standing on his head. He activates Death's curiosity by delivering an early - and crucial - speech to daughter Susan, warning her against settling for a merely good-enough marriage without having first experienced the passion of obsessive love, with all the power of, well, Anthony Hopkins delivering a crucial speech.
Having, it seems, already lived a first-rate life (great suits, divine decor, a smile of satisfaction playing around the corners of his eyes), he is faced in his final days with an opportunity to nail his wealthy morality to the wall by refusing to sell his communications empire to a wicked asset-stripper. If this seems even more fantastical than the death-come-to-life storyline, bear in mind the man has already received notice of his imminent end: even the most Rupertish of media moguls might want to inject a little moral rectitude into his cv as judgement day looms. In the event, however, this aspect of the plot is slack. Parrish is already too virtuous for there to be any real tension as we await his rejection of the take-over bid.
Parrish's role as a mortal who has something to teach to inhuman immortality is more successful. Death, of course, has to learn about the nature of love. Or, at any rate, about the nature of holiday romances. Falling for Susan (and what beautiful young woman hasn't fallen a little in love with death?), Joe Black plans to return to "the other place" with not just the father, but the daughter as well. It worked well enough on a half- yearly basis for Persephone and Hades, but Parrish is having none of it. He can't defy Death, but he can teach it a thing or two about treating women properly, and frankly, even after decades of feminism, Susan just isn't up to it. Death has to be brought up to speed on the meaning of love, which in human terms (or if love has been less than kind to you, Hollywood terms) is, if at all authentic, selfless and prepared to sacrifice itself for the beloved. It's time to get out the paper hankies, for the music to build to a cardiac-arresting crescendo, and for the fireworks (unsullied by any Hitchcockian irony) to explode in great chrysanthemums of emotion.
The life-enhancing frisson doesn't last beyond the exit door, but this is none the less an enjoyably big, expensive and romantic film - quite as entertaining, with the same glossy good looks but with more wit and less dampness, than Titanic.
Jenny Diski's collected essays, 'Don't', are published by Granta Books.
Gilbert Adair returns next week.
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