Every year we get a new set of drama films about life, love, human nature, beauty, and fulfillment. A lot of these drama films are sickeningly obvious attempts to win an award since they are released one or two months before The Oscars. Such “Oscar Bait” is usually fraught with big name actors and dramatic situations which are much more sappy than touching; such as New Year’s Eve (2011). Meet Joe Black (1998), directed by Martin Brest, was probably Oscar Bait, but it still did some creative things.
William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is a wealthy media tycoon who has a heart attack a few days before his 65th birthday. He survives, but is unsure of how much longer he has to live. Later that day, Parrish’s youngest daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) meets an attractive young man (Brad Pitt) at a coffee shop and the two become love-struck. After they part, the young man is killed and his body is becomes inhabited by Death who is coming to warn Parrish of his impending death. Death meets Parrish in his own home, appearing as a handsome visitor. Parrish and Death formulate an agreement that Death can remain with Parrish as a guest to experience some of life in exchange for postponing Parrish’s death. Parrish formulates the name Joe Black for his guest to use. Susan is astonished to see the stranger from the coffee shop at her family dinner table that evening, and wants to pursue the relationship, not knowing that it is now Death. Joe Black’s presence in Parrish’s life causes complications as he joins Parrish in board meetings and family parties, all while Parrish worries about the repercussions of his daughter’s infatuation with Death incarnate.
One of the more interesting components of this film was the character of Joe Black. His character was riddled with abstractions of death that have taken on the form of a personality. Joe insinuates himself into situations where he’s not welcome; his presence makes things uncomfortable and awkward, he always gets the last word, and he’s accustomed to being an unquestioned authority. Joe is more of an angel of death than a dark foreboding reaper. Joe has a few humorous lines. In one scene Parrish is stressed about the legacy he’s leaving behind to which Joe says, “Careful Bill, you'll give yourself a heart attack and ruin my vacation.” There were a few illogical aspects of the character, too; Joe Black seems oblivious to some normal interactions and things like peanut butter. Is this the first time Death has used a body to experience living? It doesn’t really say.
There is a sex scene between Joe and Susan, which was interesting. It was graphically rather tame, but unlike most sex scenes it focused primarily on the man, not the woman. This was an important character-developing scene because it was a new experience for Joe, and his expressions were communicating that this was so much better than peanut butter.
Parrish was also a pleasantly surprising character. Most wealthy, powerful tycoons in movies are depicted as being uncaring, money grubbing, power hungry scrooges. Parrish is none of these things. He’s kind and loving, he cares for his family, and he misses his deceased wife. He does use his position of authority and power when it is needed, but he is still a unpretentious person. It was good to see this kind of a character for a change.
As a supernatural romance/drama of sorts, this movie could have included a lot of dark visual effects to develop the embodiment of Death. But there wasn’t. This movie was very much grounded and realistic. We’re given reasons to understand that Joe Black really is Death. There are no dark clouds or glowing eyes to depict this. It’s all taken care of in very natural character development.
Meet Joe Black was probably Oscar Bait, but it wasn’t a bad drama. The romance wasn’t the focus of the film, it was more of a commentary about love and life. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a good drama film once in awhile, Meet Joe Black is a decent choice. But I could see some of viewers not caring for it.