I don’t exactly have strong feelings one way or the other about Meet Joe Black. Some despise it for being overly long and uneventful, some enjoy it as a meditation on death and love and living a fulfilling life. I’m neutral. Consistently so, in fact: pretty much every single facet of Black lands in a sort of middle ground. The premise? Interesting enough. The writing? Passable. The great Anthony Hopkins? Yes, he’s certainly Anthony Hopkins. The direction is fine, too, from the reliably careful Martin Brest, though this is him turning in his final film before the reliably careless Gigli; shame that every time you think hey, that’s a nice shot the little homunculus in your head whispers don’t forget Gigli. Anyway, I’m aggressively neutral on Meet Joe Black.
Do you want to talk about something else? Have you seen the commercial with the little baby and the car and the thing? Did you know that Rogaine is fatal to cats? Oh, you really came for Meet Joe Black? On purpose? And you haven’t even seen it? Abridged version: everything is starting to die (Anthony Hopkins) or starting to live (Claire Forlani) or Brad Pitt’s hair (Brad Pitt’s hair).
If you have seen it, you’re in one of many camps. You hate Meet Joe Black: it has an insufferable structure of conversation after conversation with almost no action at all, and you resent people who like the movie because they smile knowingly and suggest that perhaps it’s just “too subtle”. Or, you love Meet Joe Black: it has ideas and it engages with them, which is a hell of a lot more than you can say about most other Hollywood movies, and you resent people who hate the movie because they think you’re smiling knowingly and suggesting that perhaps it’s just “too subtle” but you’re really not, you just like it. Or, you don’t really care. It’s hard to get worked up about it. Meet Joe Black is a thing and people are walking around in it and talking and kissing. I know Anthony Hopkins is in this movie and yet I can’t think of a single line he said. I know it’s three hours long and yet I remember essentially nothing except ugh, Gigli.
…besides one thing. For some reason I equate Meet Joe Black with one scene, a brief exchange that arguably encapsulates both the potential enchantment and the frustrating idiocy afoot in the film:
Enchantment! Idiocy! Let’s start with the latter, because the mysteries of love and human nature aren’t often as interesting as stupid people doing stupid things. There’s almost certainly a parody cut of this scene where Forlani’s Susan and Pitt’s Pre-Death Coffee Shop Guy keep walking and turning around over and over and over; as it is, they double-take about as many times as Sean Maguire tells Will Hunting “It’s not your fault”. And why the heck are they carrying two massive bags apiece? Why does Coffee Shop Guy follow up the incredibly suave “lightning could strike” line with the desperately blunt “I like you so much”? Why does Susan stop at a coffee shop if she’s in such a rush? Why does Susan stop at a coffee shop if she’s rich?
The answer to all of these could be Gigli, but these are trivial in the face of the colossally moronic death that caps the scene. This is a movie that ostensibly deals with Death in a mature way, personifying Death, making Death fall in love, tackling the two biggest themes — Death, Love — in a single stroke. It’s the kind of premise that can give you something as zany as Bruce Almighty, but Meet Joe Black purports instead to be a serious epic. So when the only real death of the film elicits not compassion or introspection but simply straight-up laughter at how absurd Brad Pitt looks whilst getting owned by a panel van and a taxi, Meet Joe Black basically trips right out of the gate. Any identification with the what-could-have-been romance told in those forlorn glances is immediately undermined by a ridiculous out-of-the-blue gravity-defying movie death.
So why do I remember that scene? Is it because of that massive letdown, that forced downshift in the ability to take Black seriously? This is the part where I take back what I said about there being nothing especially memorable about Meet Joe Black, because it’s Thomas Newman’s score that makes the entire thing worthwhile. I submit that if you’re in the Like Joe Black Camp it’s largely because Newman’s score awoke some passion in you while you watched it, even if you didn’t realize it. Don’t believe me? A second ago, when you watched that clip, did you give any special attention to the music? I certainly didn’t. But going over it only highlights the real theme of Meet Joe Black, and it’s not just death or love. It’s longing, and that’s the hidden aspect of both losing someone and finding someone.
Newman’s compositions here are full of longing. That tune is “Walkaway”, a short but beautiful piece; naming the rest would take up too much time, but suffice it to say that Newman’s storied career holds Meet Joe Black as his most underrated score. Road to Perdition, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption and Newman’s Pixar scores are all fantastic, but the soundscape of Black is such that you might not even notice it the first time out. You’re distracted by the fact that the movie itself might be kinda bad, that Claire Forlani’s facial expressions are just unending, that a freaking car horn cuts off Newman’s work here. I imagine him sitting in the editing room and raising an eyebrow as his piece reaches resolution only to be blasted from memory by a taxi horn. If you’re in the Hate Joe Black Camp, you might easily say that Brest mishandled a fantastic score by making the clunky story so obviously clunky around it (even if you do acknowledge the music the first time out — “say…are Brad Pitt’s bangs dancing to the music?”); but, again, maybe it just doesn’t matter to you. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to watch Meet Joe Black again, but I implore you to listen to Newman’s score. It’s some of his finest…wait a minute. Who scored Gigli?