The dream factory: Too much time for Death
Sunday 29 November 1998
Meet Joe Black, you will learn, is not just bad. It is boring. And very, very long. "I had heard vile rumours that Meet Joe Black ran for almost three hours," Anthony Lane kicked off in his review for the New Yorker. "The rumours were true, but let's be fair: what matters is not how long a film is but how long it seems, and Meet Joe Black doesn't seem like a three-hour film at all. It seems like a ten-hour film."
"Well, now we know why the term `bored to death' was invented," concurred Jean Oppenheimer in the alternative Los Angeles weekly New Times. "Dead air occupies more space than dialogue, as actors pause before, during, and after sentences. If all the unnecessary pauses in the movie were eliminated, the picture would be at least a half-hour shorter." And so the reviews go, spinning joke after cruel joke about the film's most glaring shortcoming. Not to mention its ambitious subject matter, which in other hands might have been considered rather daring for a mainstream Hollywood film: nothing less than Death itself.
No, it's not a remake of The Seventh Seal (though one could have great fun imagining Brad Pitt taking over the Max Von Sydow role, wandering through a stricken American cityscape whose water supply has been poisoned by an evil genius with a chess computer). It is a remake of an entirely different film, the charming 1934 comedy Death Takes A Holiday, which imagined what the world would look like if the Grim Reaper hung his scythe up for a couple of days.
Ostensibly, Meet Joe Black sounds cast in much the same mould, its amiable, Capra-esque title promising whimsy and light social satire. In fact, it is a sentimental family saga in which a dying media tycoon played by Anthony Hopkins is given a short reprieve while Death takes a tour of the here and now in the form of Brad Pitt. Pitt, aka Death, aka the eponymous Joe Black, falls in love with the tycoon's daughter and develops a child-like taste for peanut-butter. Time runs on apace, however, and after a grandiose final birthday party the tycoon and Death walk off into a schmaltzy hereafter.
Even without the longueurs, Meet Joe Black is the sort of the film that screams out to critics: "pan me". The plot is ludicrous, the dialogue worse, the self-indulgence of the whole exercise like some outsize bubble just waiting to be pricked. Sure enough, the critics have gone for it, guns blazing. Lines like "There's so many words I wanted to say but, uh, I can't, so I'd better sit down" or "The taste of your lips and the touch of your tongue - that was wonderful!" have made the transition from screen to printed page in all their glorious absurdity.
But here's where the problem begins. The critics may have offered audiences a hundred good reasons to give Meet Joe Black a wide berth, but audiences don't seem to be heeding the advice. The film does not look like blockbuster material quite yet, but after two weeks it has made $30m (pounds 19m) at the box office and looks like netting a pile more before the holiday season is over.
Early fans have even taken the trouble to write to the newspapers complaining about the off-hand treatment doled out by the critics.
Suddenly, one is reminded of the fine Hollywood tradition of drivel that sells - think of Pretty Woman, or The Bodyguard, or Prince of Tides, or the last Brad Pitt-Anthony Hopkins outing Legends of the Fall (which falls into the same sub-category as Joe Black: interminable drivel that sells).
The critics have been so in love with their own jokes that they have overlooked the fact that Brad Pitt is widely considered the sexiest man alive, whom audiences will flock to even if he is playing Death with blond highlights. And they have failed to understand, as the marketing people clearly did, that low-brow material does not necessarily translate into low-brow box-office, no matter how much they jump up and down and crack jokes.
It's a galling thought, but inescapable in this case: sometimes the critics are plain wrong - even if for all the right reasons - and the marketing men in sharp suits infuriatingly on the button. There is accounting for taste, and bad taste above all.
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