Thursday, September 17, 2015

Nobody Cares But Me: Meet Joe Black

by Patrick Bromley
I've been thinking about death a lot lately.

I don't mean to sound morbid. Or maybe I do. I don't know. It's just something that's been on my mind quite a bit in recent weeks, even before the sudden (to me) loss of Wes Craven. Maybe that has contributed to my inability to deal with losing him, or maybe my inability to deal with losing him has only exacerbated how much I've been thinking about the subject. That's a chicken/egg debate not really worth having, because the chicken is sad and the egg is stillborn.

The truth is I've always thought a lot about death because I'm scared of it. I'm not special in this way. We all are. But I can remember sitting on the basement stairs at my grandma's house in Missouri on my sixth or seventh birthday and crying because I realized that a) another year of my life had gone by and I hadn't accomplished anything and b) I was now a year closer to dying. With that kind of darkness I could have been the next Tim Burton. All I need is the desire to take good things and make them more terrible.

The more I've thought about it recently, the more I've come to realize that it's not the dying part that really scares me. I was not raised with any kind of religion or spirituality, so I'm not really a believer in an afterlife (though I will not identify as an atheist, because those people tend to be know it alls). So while I'm weirded out by the idea that one day I will exist and the next day I won't, I'm ok with it. The part that scares me is my own feeling that if that's where this is all heading, what was the point of of being here in the first place? I know, I know, life is precious and I must appreciate every day I get. In my better moments I look at my wife and my kids and I'm happy to know them (and, in some cases, helped make them). They're the best. I'm also lucky to have been here long enough to see Universal turn the Fast & Furious series around, because Fast Five is a gift. My problem isn't that I'm a take-my-ball-and-go-home kind of guy; my problem is that I'm a stay-home-and-never-go-play-ball-in-the-first-place kind of guy. Knowing that I'm just going to go out there and lose makes me never want to get in the game. And I'm eventually going to lose. We all do.
The movie that sometimes helps me negotiate all of this is Meet Joe Black, which I know is fucking crazy because 95% of the world's population either never saw it or quickly forget it and the 5% that remember it actively dislike it. I get it. It's criminally overlong. It's embarrassingly self-indulgent. It has the pacing of a tortoise fucking a sloth. Writer/director Martin Brest was given final cut on the movie, a decision I'm sure Universal would come to regret. It cost just shy of $100 million to produce, which is insane for a three hour movie in which people stand around in houses and stare at one another in silence. I don't care about any of that. The movie works for me. It always has.

I think I've told the story before. I got around to seeing Meet Joe Black on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon in 1998 a few weeks after it was already in theaters. Most of the tickets sold for the movie were for people paying to see the trailer for The Phantom Menace and then bailing from the theater faster than you can say "Brad Pitt plays Death in a three-hour romantic drama..." (and even with those ticket sales, the film limped to just over $40 million domestically, which would have been a total disaster had it not grossed an additional $100 million overseas). I was nearly alone in the theater; it was just me and two middle-aged women who talked loudly to one another through most of the running time. I didn't care. From its opening moments -- a looong sequence in which Anthony Hopkins is visited several times by Death and comes to the realization that his days are numbered -- I was completely invested. Emmanuel Lubezki's photography is impossibly beautiful. Same for Thomas Newman's score, which some critics accused of being cloying and treacly and which can still make me start crying to this day. I think I cried for the last 45 minutes of the movie all the way through the end credits set to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (Incidentally, this was the first time I had ever heard that version, which I found to be beautiful and an inspired choice of music; now it's become so overplayed that it inspires mostly eye rolling.) This is crazy because watching it with any sort of emotional distance reveals that it's super repetitive as Anthony Hopkins says goodbye to one person after another. Didn't care. Still don't. That shit worked for me.
Some movies just hit us in the right way at the right time. I knew that about myself in 1998 and I know it still today. I won't defend Meet Joe Black as a great film. I won't even defend it as an underrated one, as I recognize that everyone's reasons for disliking the movie are completely valid. But the movie offered me something I needed on that weekday afternoon and continues to offer me something I need today. It is a movie that is not sad about death or loss. It's a movie that says living a good life is its own reward, and when the time finally comes to leave that has to be enough.

Of course, it helps that Anthony Hopkins' character, a media tycoon named Bill Parrish, is a billionaire. Living a "good life" comes more easily to those with all the fuck you money in the world. This is an aspect of the movie I struggled with for a long time, because for all its universal messages about dying I felt like it completely removed itself from the real world by focusing on an incredibly wealthy and powerful family planning an incredibly huge and extravagant party. But it comes in part, I think, from the fact that Martin Brest's screenplay is an adaptation of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, in which Frederic March plays Death taking over the body of a nobleman. It's a movie about a royal family, and clearly Brest chose to suggest that the Ted Turner-like media tycoon of his version is the American equivalent of royalty. Or maybe it's a choice driven by plot; would Death (now Brad Pitt) want to hang out on Earth for a week if he came across a family crammed into a two-bedroom apartment? Maybe he just wanted to live the good life for a few days.

But what it really comes down to, I think -- and the reading that makes me most comfortable with what the film is about -- is the idea that death comes for us all. It is the great equalizer, and while Bill Parrish is able to pass away in greater comfort than someone wasting away in a hospital bed or a homeless person freezing to death on the streets of a Chicago winter, the end result is the same. It's inevitable, and Meet Joe Black is about that inevitability. All the money in the world doesn't change it.
One of the movie's big problems is the performance of Brad Pitt, who has chosen to play Death as a morose, wide eyed child; it's weird that he has been around since the beginning of time and knows so much about the way the world works but is still amazed by peanut butter. I have suggested before that Brad Pitt is a great character actor stuck with the looks of a leading man, and Meet Joe Black is that weird movie where those two halves of his screen persona come together uncomfortably. He's got his bland, blonde late-'90s look and is presented as the romantic lead of the film but attempts to infuse his performance with character actor choices (and please don't get me started on the scene where he speaks in a Jamaican accent). Maybe that's a miscalculation, or maybe they're just the wrong choices. His performance has all the energy and dynamism of syrup, which only makes a three-hour movie feel longer.

Ironically, he's at his best when he's just doing his nice-guy romantic comedy stuff early on in the film (before some terrible late '90s CGI kills him off with one of the most shocking and weirdly mean-spirited car accidents ever committed to film). He has a long scene in which he has coffee with Claire Forlani -- what the great Roger Ebert dubbed the "meet cute" -- and their chemistry is lovely and adorable. We're totally ready to watch a movie about these two people falling love, and Brest understands that this scene has to work in order for us to feel the loss that comes immediately after. He overplays his hand by having them say goodbye and go off on their separate ways, only to then take turns stopping and looking back at one another six or seven times (it gets to be as ridiculous as Cameron Diaz running towards the fence at the end of The Holiday). Still, the moment works for me. This is the last time these two characters will see one another as they are, in a matter of speaking. It's a moment about the sadness of missed opportunity and the road not taken.
A much larger problem is the fact that Meet Joe Black is at least three or four movies trying to coexist with one another. It's a movie about Anthony Hopkins facing the end of his life. It's a fantasy about Death getting to know what life is like on Earth. It's a romance between Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani. It's a movie about a father and his two daughters (Forlani and Marcia Gay Harden), one of whom he clearly favors even though the other desperately seeks his love and attention. There's a whole subplot about a corporate takeover that doesn't need to exist. This is what happens when Martin Brest is allowed to make any movie he wants, and with a three-hour run time and nearly $100 million at his disposal, he doesn't need to make choices about what stays and what goes. He can include it all.

And yet. And yet.

None of this matters to me. I see the problems, I see the bloat and it does not bother me. We cannot argue with our own emotional responses to a film. We can try to understand them, but it is pointless to fight them. It would be like taking a bite of food and trying not to taste it. We must let movies happen to us, and for whatever reason Meet Joe Black happened to me. I have convinced myself time and again that it was just the place I was in on that day in 1998 -- I was heartsick in love and feeling very alone and hopeless -- but I have gone back to it since and it continues to work. It continues to happen to me.

It seems odd that I would have such hangups about death, as my two favorite movie genres are horror and action -- the two genres where the body count is practically the narrative. In its way, Meet Joe Black makes death a little less scary. The movie doesn't tell us that Bill Parrish is going on to any kind of afterlife, but makes it known that he will continue to live on in the memories of the people who knew him and loved him. The best I can do is hope for the same.

If nothing else, at least I know that when Death does come it will look like Brad Pitt.

10 comments:

  1. This was a great read, Patrick. Although I cannot comment on Meet Joe Black as I saw it once and only remember the car accident scene, much of what you wrote rings true to me. Your statement that we should let movies happen to us and we cannot argue with our responses to them is dead on. There are certainly films that I have responded to that most people would shrug at. I was really affected by Tusk of all movies in a way I would have never imagined. I don't like that film but I was almost in tears and never want to see it again. Nobody's Fool (Paul Newman) is one of my favorite comfort movies of all time. Synecdoche, New York is probably the movie that makes me reflect the most on the idea of life and death.

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    1. It was my favourite jump scare that year! I Didn't see it coming

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    2. ^^^ 1999's jump scare: the go-to punchline of every Friedberg-Seltzer movie and late night TV comedy sketch in the 2000's.

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  2. Interesting write-up, Patrick, and given the context you've made me want to see it because I'm one of the 95% - it sounds problematic but I can be pretty forgiving if what it's saying is compelling enough.

    Cloud Atlas is a movie that gave me a lot of comfort about the apparently meaninglessness of life because (even taking out the reincarnation aspect which I'm not even sure is meant to be taken literally and is inconsequential to what I took from it anyway) it says so much about what your life actually means and how the causes and effects of even a meager life ripple outwards growing larger and more meaningful over time. Having kids makes it easy - a thousand years from now there will likely be thousands of people that literally wouldn't exist if it wasn't for you - thousands of people sending out their own ripples. The fact you're out here sharing ideas and inspiring thought and introducing people to new things means your influence on the future is exponentially greater, even if it's not by name and we're not building Patrick Bromley statues or whatever. Your life matters buddy - in a weird way maybe to yourself least of all. Of course you also might indirectly inspire the next Hitler, but try not to think about that.

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  3. Patrick, this is a very interesting and very personal write-up, which made my eyes a little bit wet while I was reading.

    I`m one of the 5% and also one who actively likes this movie very much, despite the flaws you described and that I also see in this film. But it works great for me and makes me cry time and time again. Not because it´s sad but because it´s hopeful and simple, despite the big stars, big budget and big flaws.
    Not that I think about death as you do or that I have any kind of hangups about death. I don´t think I´m afraid of death. I´m afraid of pain, losing control, to be dependant of someone or something. I also don´t believe in an afterlife and I would absolutely prefer that there is none when it´s time to go. There should be an end.

    "Some movies just hit us in the right way at the right time"
    Interesting coincidence that I commented something similar today on JBs "Dead poets society" Sh!#ting on the Classics column.

    The Dead Poets society year was a very bad one, where my occasional suicidal tendencies nearly won me over. What kept me here and what since then always keeps me from doing something final are movies. I can´t stand the thought of not seeing the next movie I´m looking forward to. Kind of silly but it works.

    The Meet Joe Black year on the other hand was a good one. I got a new job, a new appartement and, best of all, I met my boyfriend of now 17 years and future husband. Another reason to stay here.
    Right now even the prospect of death looking like Brad Pitt wouldn´t be appealing enough.
    So I try to live a good life and be sure that this is what it´s all about.

    Hm, reading this again, maybe I wrote one or two sentences too much about my personal situation but hey, I like it here on fthismovie and feel comfortable in this community, so what.
    I hope it doesn´t read like something one would write on a self help blog...and if it does, I`m sorry.

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  4. I usually like the choices Brad Pitt makes, resetting his jaw in Tree of Life or crossing his eyes in 12 monkeys, but playing Death like Kevin Spacey in K-pax seems like the wrong choice. Claire Forkani was adorable though, looks like she's gone down the road of plastic surgery, regrettably.

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  5. Interesting read. Have you thought about doing a commentary for "Meet Joe Black" like you did with "Kuffs" but with a group? I'd love to hear a commentary with you, JB and Erika (who knows you best), or alternate voices that don't share your passion for the movie (i.e. everybody else). It'd not only help you exorcise your demons (like I assume writing this article has done), but it would give many of us an excuse to rewatch a movie we just can't bring ourselves to watch on its own.

    I've owned the HD-DVD of "Meet Joe Black" for years and finally got around to watching it for the first time last February. I saw some good and a lot of not-so-good in "Meet Joe Black," but I know I'd be more inclined to rewatch it if a passionate discussion (pro and con) could be synched and watched along with the movie. What do you say, Patrick? Not all the 'F This Movie' commentaries have to be yuck fests. How about a sober one for a change? ;-)

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    1. And BTW, Claire Forlani's one-two punch of "Meet Joe Black" and "Mystery Men" in the late 90's as 'the girl' can't be beat. She's never looked lovelier and more approachable than when Death and Mr. Furious are pinning for her. :-)

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  6. Very well written Patrick, Honestly every thing your wrote is perfect to the way I felt about the film crazy, nice work man.

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  7. I meant to comment on this earlier but I was in an airport and the wi-fi was too unreliable for my MJB feelings.

    Patrick, there must be a specific breed of people who are both extremely neurotic as children and fans of this movie. You are not alone.

    In brief, I remember being maybe six years old and crying behind a chair as I slowly flipped through my baby album -- wistful and afraid that life was passing by so quickly. Time scared me. Looking back, I may have been mistaking death for time.

    As an adult, I deeply and unapologetically love Meet Joe Black. I have memories of many late nights growing up at my parents' house watching it on TV. I would completely get lost in it, and usually sob for long stretches. Why does it touch me so deeply? I don't know. But it's probably the same reason that I could be found weeping over photographs as a young child.

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