Death: “Meet Joe Black” and the “Phantom Menace” trailer

Bd0ocOne of the unwanted gifts of the impending millennium is the new metaphysics-lite subgenre. These movies usually involve good people — no, make that downright noble people — who go on some awe-inspiring spiritual journey, nudged along by lots of pieties and string music. Contact, City of Angels and What Dreams May Come are prime examples. The point of these films always seems to be that the universe is kind, God is smiling above us and within us, blah blah blah.

Meet Joe Black is far and away the best of this current crop, and not just because it skimps on the life-lesson speeches. (Anthony Hopkins, summing up the film in a Today Show interview, spouted more pieties than can be found in the entire three-hour movie.) This isn’t a great film, but it’s an excellent piece of work — hushed, deliberate, surprisingly level-headed and intimate. The director, Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman), takes his time and lets tension and meaning gather in the long spaces between lines of dialogue. The 178-minute length makes sense: The movie unfolds during the final days of a man who has to learn to let go of his life.

Bill Parrish (Hopkins), an extravagantly rich businessman, has been plagued by alarming fatigue and chest pains. He suspects that death is near, and, sure enough, Death is waiting for Bill in his library — in the form of Brad Pitt. Death, who soon assumes the name Joe Black, has occupied a human body and wishes to experience life on this mortal coil before he takes Bill into the undiscover’d country. This idea has been around before, of course — in 1934’s Death Takes a Holiday and its many permutations since. And the selling point now, as then, is the romance between Joe and Susan (Claire Forlani), the younger of Bill’s two daughters. As a doomed storybook love, this beats Titanic all to hell: Hey, guy, you’re Death — you can’t be messing around with mortals, even if they do look like Claire Forlani.

Surprisingly, though, the script (credited to Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, and Bo Goldman) treats the romance as a plot point among equals. Much of the film’s emphasis is not on Joe Black but on Bill, who knows he doesn’t have much longer to live and is trying to put things in order. More important, he learns, is to put things in perspective. Anthony Hopkins does a beautifully subtle job of showing us the growing tension between Bill’s not wanting to leave his loving daughters (his eldest, who’s throwing herself into planning his 65th birthday party, is played by the warm and appealing Marcia Gay Harden) and his wanting to make sure there’s no unresolved business. The character is a bit idealized — your basic dream boss — but Hopkins burrows inside the man’s fear, anger, and resignation.

Brest’s Scent of a Woman had that completely needless subplot about Chris O’Donnell getting in trouble for a prank, and some will say that Brest is at it again in Meet Joe Black: There are maybe three scenes too many involving the machinations of Bill’s devious right-hand man Drew (Jake Weber, who nonetheless brings dry wit to a thankless role). And Thomas Newman’s score gets a bit too loud and effusive near the end, screaming “Cry!” (To be frank, I didn’t need musical encouragement. When Susan delivered her line about her father, I admit I was a goner.)

Judging by her winning performance here, I’d guess Claire Forlani is about to become very hot, and deservedly so; Brad Pitt, too, makes up for his dullness in The Devil’s Own and Seven Years in Tibet. Sometimes he’s funny (as when Joe discovers the joys of peanut butter), sometimes a little frightening. What’s more, Meet Joe Black contains one of the more shocking images I’ve ever seen in a movie — the opening-night audience buzzed about it for a full minute. (You’ll know it when you see it.) Overall, the movie is full of surprises: Long but never boring, spiritual but never soggy, this is the brand of big entertainment Hollywood is best at but so rarely does right these days.

6560257021_546b113bb0_zOkay, so the now-famous trailer for Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace (which was shown in front of Meet Joe Black, among several others) has finally been unveiled. What is there to say about it? The fans are loving it, and there’s no question that it’s a brilliant job of marketing. The trailer will be analyzed and deconstructed for months to come, poked and prodded for the secrets it may dislodge upon the twentieth or thirtieth viewing. All of this, to an unbeliever like myself, is a gigantic sick joke. The movie, when it comes, will undoubtedly be a trailer itself — a shiny advertisement for a fresh line of Star Wars toys, and the first chapter in yet another trilogy. The presence of a young Anakin Skywalker and a goofy alien sidekick suggests that George Lucas is courting the next generation — the children of his original fish, which he landed back in 1977.

Can Star Wars be blamed for the current wretched state of American movies? Not entirely, but Lucas hasn’t done much to help, either, to put it kindly. The new Star Wars films will be good for 20th Century-Fox, exhibitors, toy manufacturers, and whatever other companies are in bed with Lucasfilm to produce Star Wars junk; the films will move some currency around. But I don’t think I will be called cynical if I predict that very little of the riches will be pumped back into independent film. The massive anticipation for The Phantom Menace — hell, the massive anticipation for its trailer — reveals America at its immediate-gratification worst. Big-budget spectacle has its place, but if that becomes the only genre welcomed in the marketplace — and we’re getting perilously near that point — then it’s all over.

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