' ' Cinema Romantico: No, Honestly, I'm Really Asking, Where Did You Go, Joe Black?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

No, Honestly, I'm Really Asking, Where Did You Go, Joe Black?

If Film Twitter is frequently a black hole less comparable to Katie Bouman’s photograph and more in the vein of “Event Horizon”, it occasionally, unexpectedly opens up into a sun-dappled solarium, like it did last week, late Thursday, when I logged in and noticed that “Meet Joe Black” (1998), Martin Brest’s (almost) last stand, was improbably trending. The source of its social media resurrection, near as I could tell, was Rosie O’Shea (@ladyastronauty) Tweeting a one-minute and nineteen second clip of the film’s inciting incident in which Brad Pitt’s nameless but impeccably coiffed young man and Claire Forlani’s medical resident Susan Parrish, post-coffee shop Meet Cute, walk in opposite directions, each one pausing at the exact wrong moment to look back, suggesting a “Serendipity” precursor, where these two destined souls spend the entire movie apart trying to re-engineer their original soul connection. Alas, in a jarring moment tonally apart from the moment’s wistfulness, Pitt’s nameless but impeccably coiffed young man gets blindsided by a car, thrown into the air and then hit by another car coming the other way. “This is,” Tweeted O’Shea, “the most bonkers one minute of a movie I have ever seen.” Others seemed to agree, as a whole legion of Twitter whippersnappers apparently discovered the generally forgotten “Meet Joe Black” for the first time.

I used to watch this scene through the projection booth porthole of the multiplex where I started working in the fall of 1998 just to revel in the Woah There! reactions of movie-goers. And if just a couple weeks ago I was lamenting the myriad 1999 movies I watched by myself after building them reel by reel, none of those experiences all put together equaled “Meet Joe Black.” I still remember the deliveryman dropping off the reel canisters and just staring at them in disbelief, thinking “Can this be right? Can there be this many reels? Can it really be this long?” Yes. Yes, it could, and I know because I watched “Meet Joe Black”, all three hours of it, by myself in an empty auditorium. That 180 minute run time might have seemed suspect before I sat down to watch it, but it seemed insane after I finally finished, leaving a movie theater in the small hours.

“Meet Joe Black’s” premise, in which Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), an aging billionaire, becomes the earthly guide for Death itself, taking the form of Pitt’s nameless but impeccably coiffed young man, before being escorted by Death off to The Great Beyond, is cribbed from “Death Takes a Holiday” (1934) which ran a scant 79 minutes. Though there are comic moments, “Meet Joe Black” is not, say, “Defending Your Life.” No, Brest strains for the operatic, only to frequently devolve into soap operatic instead, sentimental and syrupy, pouring over the romance between Susan, Bill’s daughter, and Death, all while negotiating Bill’s co-lead story and a corporate espionage subplot involving Susan’s villainous fiancé (Jake Weber). And while each piece falls neatly into place, Brest is not concerned with storytelling efficiency, preferring to linger, perhaps overmuch, though that is not the same thing as being superfluous.

Indeed, a shorter film might not have carved out time for such sterling supporting performances by Marcia Gay Harden, playing Danni Minogue to Susan’s Kylie with a rueful, graceful understatement, and Jeffrey Tambor as her spouse, Bill’s son in law, who gives the otherwise rote corporate espionage subplot some emotional oomph simply for the non-verbal way he takes the castigation of his manhood by Weber’s character, transforming audible heavy breathing becoming a miraculous sonic demonstration of tragic humility. Hopkins, meanwhile, has his character meet Death with a rich man’s arrogance suggesting he can stop what’s coming even as he simultaneously is humbled by the fact that he cannot, brilliantly harnessing the emotion of the weight of a whole life lived that is now slipping right through his fingers. And the operatic straining is what turns the Death/Susan romance into something less than clockwork, letting Forlani, whose eyes are a goddam supernova, hunger for Pitt the way thousands of millions of of women of the same era did. Brest even gives Pitt the, uh, climactic close-up in their sex scene, a $90 million Universal production released into the holiday marketplace as voyeurism.

Pitt simply could have slid by on his innate charm – in fact, most actors would have, and would have been coached to. But Pitt, bless his heart, was playing to the idea of being an inhuman life form having taken one as a vessel, like he’s figuring out his body, blank-faced because what’s emotion? It doesn’t always work, and it can be weird, comically so, like the GIF of Brad Pitt as Death eating peanut butter which made the rounds during last Thursday’s Twitter scroll down memory lane. But in seeing that peanut butter GIF over and over, I found the weirdness not nostalgic but refreshing, as if it was brand new.

It was ironic that the new “Star Wars” trailer was set for release the next day. Here we are, over twenty years later, and still returning to that well, dredging up every last bit. I’ve written about it before but what causes people to freak out over these trailers isn’t anything new but everything they know. I also gasped at the sight of Lando, and then I caught myself. It’s emblematic of Hollywood’s epidemic of spoon-feeding us the same ol’, same ol’, over and over, reboots, remakes, and sequels, oh my, easter eggs masquerading as protein. That’s the extent of filmmaking creativity these days, moguls making movies based on marketing plans rather than letting auteurists follow their own creative flow. And as everyone heckled “Meet Joe Black”, I found myself grieving for it. Though based on another movie, it was based only loosely, copping the premise but then roaming wherever it damn pleased, beholden to none but its own unique spirit. Would that it were more movie these days were bold enough to let themselves be called bonkers.

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