Meet Joe Black


Hold on to those fond memories of Martin Brest's "Beverly Hills Cop" (the first one) and his later "Midnight Run," that delicious comic road movie starring the unlikeliest of tag teams -- Charles Grodin as an absconding CPA and Robert DeNiro as a bail bondsman's bounty hunter -- on the run together from the FBI, the mob, and an angry wife. Hold on because when you confront Brest's current film, "Meet Joe Black," you'll get a terrible lesson in what happens when a good comic director starts believing that he's found the true meaning of art, life, and death, and insists on sharing it with the rest of us, kind of the neverending story as the neverending film.

"Meet Joe Black" is a sort of update of the quirky 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday," with Fredric March as Death, who finds much to live for down here on earth. And along the way, because Death isn't working at the moment, it gives us such charming sidelights as people surviving horrible car crashes and suicide leaps from bridges.

Unfortunately Brest, with the help of many writers (four are credited), has managed to remove almost every vestige of wit or insight from his new film.

Instead, he gives us the following: Death comes to take legendary media mogul Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), spots his lovely daughter (Claire Forlani) and makes a play for her. Not quite three hours later he sends poor Bill to heaven, then comes back to take Claire with him. End of film. Does she know that he's really Death and it's all over for her? No, although she apparently suspects something as they take that fateful walk over the soundstage horizon before the fade. Does he give her a choice? Like would you like to stay a live human being instead of a dead metaphor? Of course not. On the other hand, Claire doesn't seem all that much of a bargain, since she spends most of the film looking sideways in little jerky moves, saying "I'm sorry," and asking him "Who are you?"

And there's problem number two. He's Brad Pitt, he of the well-toned body and the swallowed vowels, Death as the surfer dude. In this film Death has a personal trainer, which we know because in the mandatory sex scene the camera is as excited by his abs and pecs as it is by what's going on below the waist. What he doesn't have is a dialogue coach, except for one scene in Claire's hospital (didn't I tell you she's a medical resident working the ER? If I knew the name I'd tell you to stay away) where an elderly black woman from the islands recognizes him and they converse in a bastard Gullah. And here's a tip on how you too can recognize Death: He's blonded his hair ends, and whenever he has to think he rolls his eyes around and around.

What the film does have, though, is two and a half interesting performances. Once again Anthony Hopkins shows how much he can do with even the worst script. Somehow he's found an interesting core to the character of Parrish, shows it to us, and -- as always -- he controls the screen in every scene. His nemesis in the film is not Death, but his daughter's fiancé Drew, played by Jake Weber, who is masterminding a plot to take over Dad's company. Weber, who looks and sounds like Peter Riegert's younger brother, takes a thankless role and plays it absolutely straight, with verve and wit and believability. The half-performance is by Jeffrey Tambor, as Quince, who's married to Parrish's other daughter and is carried along by events beyond his control.

Ultimately, the film fails because there's no core to it. Pitt's character fails to interest us, either in the writing or the playing, and Brest has forced us to spend a perfectly good day or evening watching nothing happen.