Basic Plot: William "Bill" Parish (Anthony Hopkins) isa successful CEO about to celebrate his 65th birthday. He is soon greeted by Death himself, (Brad Pitt) who has taken a young man's body and tells Bill that he will delay his upcoming death as long as Bill acts as his guide to the living world. In the meantime, he begins to fall for Bill's daughter Susan (Claire Forlani).
I think most people saw this movie not so much for the star power in it but for the concept, which is very reassuring. Too many movies lure people in based solely on what stars the movie could grab (see any recent assemble romantic comedy) and it's nice to see that enough brains are working out there. The concept above is one of the best movie concepts ever made, not only because it's so new and surreal, but because there's so much cool stuff you can do with it. There are endless moods and plots you can go with. When you have a concept that gives you so much to do with it, and will get people in the theater seats, it's pretty hard to blow it.
Somehow, these guys did. For the last half hour of this film, I was physically stunned and just how terrible, contrived, and downright lame the movie became. This movie's quality didn't rise and fall, it was a steady decline, a 45 degree downwards angle, and when it was all over I couldn't believe how they managed to ruin such a promising idea. Did the director Martin Brest leave the set? Did the screenwriter have the flu? Did an asteroid hit somewhere? What happened?
The film starts out beautifully, with Bill (Hopkins) having a series of small heart attacks and hearing a voice whispering "Yes" repeatedly. He eventually has a conversation with the voice in his head, which is actually his own voice but more soothing and a bit sinister. Then we see Susan meet a young man played by Brad Pitt and they find themselves immediately simpatico. They said goodbye and Brad Pitt is killed in a, unreal car accident, which Susan doesn't see. Later on, Bill hears the voice at dinner. The voice leads him to his study, where an individual begins speaking to him more about who he is and why he came. He walks behind distorted glass on which lamplight shines, which creates a brief skull shape as he speaks. Slowly, he walks into the room, into view, and his voice gradually changes, and it's revealed to be Brad Pitt, as Death has taken his body. He tells Bill that he's going to die but before he does he will act as Death's guide on earth.
The entire scene is hypnotic and it works very well at drawing us into this dark fantasy world. It feels more like a foreign film, like something Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) would cook up, because it's so bizarre yet inviting at the same time. It's unnerving, weird, morbid by concept, yet you want to know more. The opening of this movie set the stage for a perfect modern fantasy.
But from there, the movie turns into a goofy fish-out-of-water story, centering on how Death is so damn strange around people, which I guess is done for comedy but it's not funny. It gets pretty cringe-worthy at times, especially when he starts eating peanut butter off a spoon like a lizard or speaks in a terribly awkward Jamaican accent in a POINTLESS scene at a hospital. When someone says something to Death that he doesn't understand, he tends to just stare at them without answering. In fact, many characters do this. They either don't answer people's questions or take ten second pauses before they speak. After two hours of this, you want to tear your hair out and start punching the characters while yelling "Speak damnit! Use your words!"
This movie is three hours long, and it could have been two and half if pauses and redundant questions were removed, and it could have been an hour and a half if all the unnecessary scenes were cut. There is a huge plot line about Bill losing control of his company but it's difficult to get involved in it for two reasons: one, it's boring. And two, it's hard to care about company politics when DEATH IS IN THE ROOM. The concept of Death needing a human guide is a brilliant plot yet it's completely abandoned a half hour into the film. Bill doesn't guide Death anywhere. He doesn't show him or explain to him anything. Bill just sits and for the most part observes Death being awkward around his family and peers. The only time he shows any emotion is when Death starts becoming interested in his daughter, and when he begins to lose the company. But he doesn't seem too concerned or even interested that he is hanging out with Death himself. I kept waiting for a scene where Bill asks Death questions, Interview With a Vampire style, about what he does, how he does it, how he feels about it, ecetera. If one of the most powerful and mystical beings ever was in your office, wouldn't you want to sit down for some Q&A? Maybe even grab a beer?
The entire movie is about death yet we learn almost nothing about it. Don't tell me the only reason I'm peeved is because I wanted a fantasy film. This movie started out that way. You can't begin with a brilliant fantasy and then go into goofball romance/business problems. It doesn't make sense and it's not done very well either. The movie drops the fantasy and intrigue and goes for lame gags about Death being out of touch, really melodramatic romance scenes between Death and Susan, and plodding, anesthetized corporate politics. The ending is super cheesy, none of the characters are really likable, and some of the acting is uneven. Brad Pitt floats between great subtlety (the kiss scene is a particular highlight) and poor acting, the side characters are meaningless, Claire Forlani is decent but if she did that tuck-her-hair-behind-her-ear thing so much it was incredibly distracting, and although Hopkins is good, Bill Parish is so passive it's infuriating.
I've heard much praise for the score but there really isn't much of one. It's the same song repeated in five different scenes. It's a pretty song, but it loses weight when you hear it over and over and in scenes where it doesn't match the mood.
This is a perfect movie to remake. I usually hate how many movies are being remade now, and I think we can all agree it's being done for money and little else, yet I'd like to see a competent director/writer take on Meet Joe Black. Shit, I'll even write the screenplay. Honestly, with a concept like this, you have to actually work hard to screw it up, so credit goes to Martin Brest and the four writers who worked on this thing to blow a golden opportunity. This movie lit a bright fuse but the rocket never took off. For that, it gets a wag of the finger and a four out of ten.
What Could Have Saved It: Explore the great idea. Ditch the rest.