Meet Joe Black (1998)

“Who knows? Lightning could strike.”

Meet Joe Black is a glorious, supernatural, peculiar movie. An intimate epic about love, about loss, about life and death and the many moving, interchangeable parts which ebb in and out with the tides of existence. It’s an airy elegy of sorts, a long-winded 3-hour poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman that’s allowed to breathe freely and to build with a great sense of naive curiosity. This is a film that lingers without ever aimlessly loitering about or blindly casting stones; most of the scenes are calm, organic yet intensely calculated. There’s simply something about Meet Joe Black that deeply resonates and registers as it reminds us to tread carefully, to forgive cautiously, to love openly. And most importantly, it shows us how to enjoy the little things, for they are the biggest of all. Meet Joe Black is an exercise in how death can remind us to be present and to be alive.

Chest pains and an eerie voice awaken Bill Parish (Anthony Hopkins) in the middle of the night. He’s suspicious, fearful of what this might mean for his health, stubborn enough to shake it off as something minor. As the billionaire CEO of a prominent communications company he proudly built from the ground up, Bill lives the lifestyle of the rich and the famous. Penthouses, mansions, helicopters, housekeepers and cooks. While Bill tends to his vast portfolio, his daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) meets a kind, attractive man (Brad Pitt) in a coffee shop. They don’t exchange names or numbers. Similar to when we first encounter Bill, these two are wary, confident yet afraid to pursue a different path. And then in a grand, romanticized fashion they lose each other in the streets of New York, one looking back with strained want as the other looks ahead in abandon, trading places until love has left the picture’s frame entirely. He wasn’t Joe Black, though. We’re yet to make his acquaintance, whomever he might be.

Dinner with the family is interrupted by death, quite literally. Bill’s older daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden) goes over each and every detail for his big 65th birthday bash, her insecure husband Quince (Jeffrey Tambor) spouts sports trivia, Susan’s boyfriend Drew (Jake Weber) feigns concern towards anything and everyone his wiry frame can’t strong-arm into a business deal. Drew’s the type of man who appraises himself for more than he’s worth. As fate would have it, Death took the body of the man Susan previously met, coming into Bill’s life before he takes him to the other side, asking to be shown what it means to be alive. Meet Joe Black unfolds like the essay portion of a test that has no word limit. It finds strength in its massive length.

Joe accompanies Bill during boardroom meetings, sits with the family at dinner, even sleeps under the same roof. He is death, and death’s presence is always felt. The rest of Joe’s time is spent with Susan. She pines for the man who flirted with her in the diner. He’s attracted to the way she makes him feel, slowly imbuing him with enough humanity to be a believable person. This is mostly what goes on for about 2 and a half hours. What’s truly remarkable is how the many mundane moments throughout – a hospital visit, a shouting match, a spoonful of peanut butter, a love scene where the camera focuses on the man’s facial expressions – manage to cast a bit of magic, luring us in with a trick so predictable in its outcome yet marvelously told with the baroque window dressings of a classical melodrama, tinged with romance and mysticism. Meet Joe Black explores life’s many quadrants, sweeping together love and loss and the pursuit of happiness into one powerful, intoxicating homily that’s deserving of your undivided attention.

Even when the movie gets a tad sloppy during the third act, pulling every garment from the clothesline before they’ve completely dried, it’s because dark clouds can be seen off in the distance, ready to roll in with hard rain any minute. The eye of the storm is a calm spot though, a momentary respite from the floods drowning out the peripheral parts. In this film that’s when Bill Parrish delivers his birthday speech, saying to the faces in the crowd that he’s grateful for the life he’s lived, hopeful that they too will foster happiness through relationships instead of things and properly selling them on the enriching power that comes from having logged a wealth of memories. Bill Parrish doesn’t speak like a common man; that’s part of the reason he was picked by Death to be a liaison through life. And in this scene, as a wise man privy to his own passing, Anthony Hopkins does some of the most thoughtful acting I’ve ever seen on the screen. Every gesture, pause, inflection, and dart of his eyes radiates with passion. He’s ready to cross over, prepared to not just pen an epilogue to his own life story but to start a new tale from scratch.

Similar to 1934’s Death Takes a Holiday in every conceivable way, Meet Joe Black expands the story more than two-fold, broadening its scope to further illuminate its own perception of learned humanity, acknowledged mortality, selfless sacrifice. That’s the core of Martin Brest’s movie; understanding how letting go moves us to the next place without eradicating what we leave behind. How a life well lived is one which has allowed things to happen to a person rather than for a person. This is the kind of film I’d like to live in. It’s as bold as a Hal Ashby saga, as definitively picturesque as William Gilpin’s definition of said word, and can be summed up by a quote from the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. “The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.” To watch Meet Joe Black and to listen to Thomas Newman’s unshakable score is to fully experience all of these emotions, which is to be alive.

“To make the journey and not fall deeply in love, well, you haven’t lived a life at all.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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