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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Joe Black' Fails to Exploit Plot's Potential

Meet Joe Black. He's cool, suave, blond, and pouty, with the terrifying power of the grave behind him and the wondering heart of a child. He is imbued with supernatural presence, able to operate on a global scale, everywhere at once, he can literally reach into your very soul and pluck out its living essence; but he doesn't know what peanut butter is. Joe Black is one confused puppy.

And so is "Meet Joe Black," the 1998 metaphysical melodrama now playing at the American House of Cinema. The movie is a heavily bloated remake of the leaner, cleaner, more insightful 1934 film, "Death Takes a Holiday." For yes, our pouting, puppyish young friend Joe Black is indeed none other than that ancient scourge and minister, the Grim Reaper. And while the revision's substitution of Brad Pitt for the original's Frederic March might make the hearts of free-spending pubescents go pitter-pat, there is little else to recommend it.

For Pitt is even more dazed than usual as he wanders through the movie, confounded by the confusions at the heart of the script. "Meet Joe Black" doesn't know if it wants to be a gentle (and turgid) otherworldly romance like "City of Angels," or something with more bite and menace, like "Devil's Advocate." So it meanders along for almost three hours trying to make up its mind. If you liketo look at Brad Pitt (or his less-famous but equally gorgeous co-star, Claire Fortani), it might provide some diversion. Then again, a nice poster would be cheaper, wouldn't it?

However, there are some good moments in the film - almost all of them provided by Anthony Hopkins, who throws away a tremendous performance in a misbegotten production. Despite this "expense of spirit in a waste of shame," it is still marvelous to watch Hopkins wring a bit of vivid reality out of a badly written, dully conceived character. He plays media mogul Bill Parrish, a pure-hearted tycoon (you run across them everywhere) whose appointment with his maker is put off when old Joe Death takes a liking to his daughter, Susan (Fortani).

As several reviewers have noted, Bill's bluff, hearty goodness robs the film of what could have been its most interesting angle: the emotional and spiritual struggles of a complex man as he stares into the abyss at the end of a full but wicked life - his guilt, his joys, his recriminations, his attempts to escape our inescapable doom. Death then becomes the Ultimate Stranger, the figure in the mirror that reflects back the essential emptiness, the radical otherness of our lives, our selves, which rise from and return to Nothingness. Or at least you could work up a few yocks from a blustering baddie trying to scam his way out of Death's clutches.

But while Pitt's performance can certainly supply plenty of the essential emptiness, the movie explores neither the deeper implications of its set-up nor the comic possibilities. Instead, director Martin Brest simply unrolls his unconsidered plot like a bolt of thick, wet wool. His propensity for cinematic loquaciousness almost ruined another movie of his, "Scent of a Woman," which was saved, barely, by a riveting, all-out performance from Al Pacino. Hopkins could have perhaps turned the tide here, but there is not enough of him. Far too much time is given over to the dreamy, droopy romance of Joe and Susan.

Maybe the next time Death takes a holiday, we'll get lucky and he'll turn up as Homer Simpson. It would certainly be more lively - and no doubt more insightful - than "Meet Joe Black."

- Chris Floyd