La Morte in Vacanza. 'Death Takes a Vacation.' A story almost eighty years old, which has taken form as a play, a musical, a television movie and a feature film. Death, tired of the rigmarole, sets aside the scythe and cloak to join the living, to examine them for a short period of time, a curious outsider to our traditions and cultures, who discovers love and, much like a child, cannot see past his own needs to the needs of others. The idea of the power and ideal of humanity may be sappy and a tad contrived, but allowed breathing room, the story allows for complex drama as a fascinating character study. Remade in 1998 by director Martin Brest (before the dreadful 'Gigli'), 'Meet Joe Black' gives death another chance to take on human form, while still maintaining his duties of ushering souls out of this world, to see the other side, with a specific future passenger to the other realm as his guide.
'Meet Joe Black' isn't everyone's cup of tea, as for a number of reasons the film has divided audiences over the years. Some may call it sluggish, with a daunting three hour runtime that most certainly takes its time getting from point a to point b, with lingering shots only exacerbating frustrations. Others can call it hokey, cheesy, and generally cliche, what with the pretty boy hot new star (Brad Pitt) casually letting his shirt slip off in that one scene, allowing his flowing muscles to make women melt as they're slowly exposed. Is it manipulative? Deceptive? Predictable? Pandering to the point of being pornographic? Evenly divided on Rotten Tomatoes, a common quote among critics complained that, to paraphrase, somewhere in the three hour runtime was a solid ninety minute to two hour feature, that this film dragged on despite the damage it was doing to itself, that it was self-serving and utterly unaware of its effect on audiences.
I'm in the other corner. 'Meet Joe Black' is what I consider an essential film in my collection, a must-have, a title that I can't not own at any time, even if it means hanging on to an outdated disc. I know this isn't a film for everyone, and I'm not here to say that everyone should enjoy it, and that everyone who dislikes it is wrong. I know that there are some thematic elements that can be upsetting, such as the way main character William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) shows favor to his younger daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) over the elder Allison (Marcia Gay Harden). I am well aware that the climax of the film opens the door for numerous questions that don't quite make sense, such as how a particular character would interact with those who came to know him when embodied by death himself, his lack of a memory of events that unfolded an obvious plot hole.
Still, I can't help but sing the praises for this re-imagining. The way characters are fleshed out over the lengthy runtime, we feel as though we get to know them, honestly and authentically, through their actions or inaction, instead of the cheap way we're fed information about characters in other films as a way to negate this important process. We're given a rich assortment of people to grow invested in, each with their own subplots and intentions, all of which exist due to multiple relationships to those around them, not just as one-off supporting characters to one particular lead role. This complexity in the relationships is what creates empathy, an interest in seeing the story through to conclusion, and keeps even the most mundane of scenes interesting due to the plot twists that take place due to a single misspoken line.
Brad Pitt, bless his heart, is still in "pretty boy mode," summoning the oozing charisma that made him a star in 'Legends of the Fall,' and it's through his peculiar, nuanced performance that we grow invested in the film. The young man we first meet, he's a charmer, he's typical of what we'd expect from Pitt: a guy who could get any girl he wants, who says the right things at exactly the right times. But when the single most unintentionally hilarious catastrophe caught on film takes place, leaving the young man assuredly deceased, we meet him again, the embodiment of the internal dialogue that Hopkins' media mogul was battling in prior scenes. As death incarnate, we see a virgin to the world, the outsider finally on the inside, who is entirely oblivious to everything around him. His awkward speech and social ineptitude, his concerns for his identity being outed, his every moment a bit of wide-eyed wonder, soaking in the world around him.
It may be bizarre to see death fall in love, or even see someone fall in love with death, but in 'Meet Joe Black,' it makes sense. The slow building romance between the youngest, somewhat naive Parrish and the idealistic to the nth degree stranger is a slow burn, from immediate fascination, to concern and rejection, to building trust again and making a real connection. Susan's only competitor for death's love? A spoon full of peanut butter, and she manages to best her sticky yet delicious adversary to earn what she thinks is a man's heart. From coincidence to fate, to the realization of deception from someone who has penetrated his way into the family's trust, the relationship between the two polar opposite beings, one representing life and possibility, the other the end of both, is natural.
'Meet Joe Black' takes place in a world where a mere conversation, awkward as it may be, can be intensely romantic; a world where the outside world ceases to exist when two characters make that vital connection. In the masterfully lavish, extraordinary setting with the rich arsenal of characters, there's easily two distinctly different films taking place at once in nearly every scene, yet every scene maintains composure and natural transition to the next, with no unnatural leaps in scenery or tone. It's not a perfect film, as Forlani's random overacting becomes a distraction, and it's hard to take Stanley Tucci seriously after his character, who is utterly oblivious to everything around him, proclaims his love for little girls in a manner that would make anyone not familiar with his innocence a bit concerned, but it's not fair to hold a film up to perfection and denounce it for not reaching said lofty goal. 'Meet Joe Black' is more than a relationship drama, even if its target audience these days is of the female persuasion. There's more here than Brad Pitt's bulging muscles and his yearning heart. If ever there were a film that has an unfair rap, it's this magnificent character study hidden beneath the poise of romantic drama.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Meet Joe Black' arrives on Blu-ray in America on a purportedly Region A/B/C BD50 disc. This title does not feature a main menu, and automatically starts the film after the traditional warning and studio screens. There are no packaging gimmicks or bonus trinkets to this release. European consumers have already had this title available to them for over a year, on a barebones offering that includes a wealth of subtitle and dub offerings.
Universal has a reputation when it comes to their catalog Blu-ray releases, and it isn't necessarily a good one. If you don't believe me, check out the already obsoleted first release of 'Out of Africa' or the DNR nightmare that is 'Spartacus.' Somehow, someway, someone from Universal doesn't quite understand the damage done to films when tampering with the picture quality on the fly, and we all are stuck with discs that act as proof of such. 'Meet Joe Black' isn't a travesty like some other discs, but it most certainly isn't a great looking disc, either.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 encode, this disc makes a dateless film seem dated, and it isn't grain removal that rears its ugly head, as grain seems to be untouched or at least altered in such loving doses that it isn't a distraction. Instead, edge enhancement utterly ruins a disc that already had its share of problems. Minor artifacting and a little bit of wavering can be seen occasionally, as can a small smattering of noise and untouched dirt issues that pop up throughout the runtime. Let's ignore the hit or miss textures, the random shots devoid of finer detail or the way clothing sometimes looks like it were bought from Build-A-Bear. The way characters sometimes float in a scene, with large enough halos that they look like they were cut out from a magazine by a seven year old and pasted onto the picture, makes this a very difficult watch. Yes, there are jet blacks, fine hair distinction, and consistent skin tones, and solid colors to boot, but a lack of fine detail, a lack of cleanliness, and a stampede of exaggerated edges knock this disc back to reality.
The previously released red case version of 'Meet Joe Black' was presented with not quite lossless Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound. Almost five years later, the flick has been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track. Improvement? You betcha! Dialogue is perfectly clear and understandable, from the softest whispers to the loudest yells, with accurate dynamics and prioritization that doesn't leave a single word behind. The score, which has a nice light bass accent, dances through the room with grace and dignity, as one of the only elements to hit the rears with any form of consistency. Ambient effects are awkward, as crowded rooms hit fronts but not rears, with music attempting to bridge the gap. The finale is the disc's highlight, as the fireworks scene packs a solid, surprising thud. This track is passable, and a major step up from the previous disc. The only reason the score has not changed is because in five years time, I'd like to think with thousands more discs available, standards are a bit higher.
As is mentioned in the Vital Stats section of this review, European countries have had 'Meet Joe Black' available to them for some time now. This section of the review is focused on comparing the United States release to a featureless French release of the film, which is Region A/B/C. Both discs have identical technical specifications (VC-1/1080p, 1.85:1 aspect ratio). However, there are minor differences between them. The French disc has slightly more artifacting visible, on top of the same disheartening level of edge enhancement. In what may be the oddest difference between releases, the amount of dirt visible on the French disc is significantly less than the American version. In terms of audio, the American disc (which features English and French audio and English and Spanish subs) is blown out of the water, at least in terms of options, by its French counterpart (which contains 9 audio tracks and 21 subtitle options). I could not detect any change or difference in the sound between releases.
Things that make sense: no change in the supplement package from HD DVD to Blu-ray. Things that make no sense whatsoever, and quite frankly piss me off: changing the artwork to match that of the out of print Ultimate Edition of the DVD (which contained the original film), yet not bringing over any of the supplements. Boo.
Some people hate, hate, hate 'Meet Joe Black,' but I've never been among them. I love the lingering scenes, I love the pace and the fullness of the story. I love the way that characters are developed and realized, and act in a manner befitting what we've seen from them up to any given point. I can't get enough of seeing Brad Pitt hit by a car in a crosswalk, before ricocheting into another car; in fact, I sometimes watch it on YouTube, and press a number key that fast forwards to the impact and all of its unintentionally hilarious glory. 'Meet Joe Black' is a romantic film, for more reasons than the budding relationship it features. It's film romanticism, the idea that every shot is important, every line critical. It's a work of art, to me, and one of my most wanted Blu-ray releases, now available. This American disc is a slight step up from the European discs, though it isn't an improvement across the board.