Director Martin Brest took his inspiration for Meet Joe Black from the 1934 film Death Takes A Holiday. That was a comedy, but Brest needed a story that touched on something deeper. Hence, what was originally touted as a rom-com unfolds as a much more sincere drama.
Before its release, Meet Joe Black had already been condemned as the most expensive romance ever made (costing over $100 million) and that's for a movie with few special effects. Death may well be a very ordinary character with no obvious special powers. But Parrish, on the other hand, is a millionaire with a millionaire's lifestyle, wardrobe and lavish birthday party to attend. Every detail of his life is perfectly realised on screen (specially designed furniture, ornaments, clothes, etc), and to create a millionaire's lifestyle you evidently have to spend a millionaire's budget.
The money, however, isn't the issue: no one minds how much is spent if the end product is fantastic. The issue here is the running time. Meet Joe Black is not bad: it's superbly acted by the three leads, while the relationship between Anthony Hopkins (struggling to deal with the knowledge of his death) and Claire Forlani (who gradually begins to suspect the stranger's motive), is particularly well handled.
It looks sumptuous too, bathed in autumn colours as light and life creep into Death's existence. And, to top it off, this morbid love story also has a compelling central storyline, as well as a subplot about the fate of Parrish's media empire. But what it has more than anything else is a bum-numbing three-hour running time. With its epic nature, Titanic got away with it. Meet Joe Black does not.
At the beginning, Parrish delivers a long speech about the nature of life and love. His distracted daughter looks at him and says: "Give it to me again, but the short version." Someone should have said that to Brest. He could have cut a few speeches. He could have lost a very uncomfortable sex scene between Joe Black and Susan (would they make Death- babies?) He should certainly have sliced out some uneven playing from the support, who seem to think they're in a different kind of movie to the central protagonists. These elements wouldn't have been missed. We could also have gone without Pitt's astonishing Jamaican accent, used for dramatic effect when a Caribbean woman recognises Joe Black for what he is. Not to mention the very unconvincing explanation of how, although he's in one place, he can still kill people all over the world. The audience would have survived.
The best bits of Meet Joe Black are contained in the first half-hour and the last, and are worthwhile. The beginning is intriguing, the end tearful, especially as Susan wordlessly begins to realise the fate of her father. To those who have lost a relative recently, these scenes in particular are teary and painful. But they would have had so much more impact without a thumb-twiddling, seat-shifting middle-section.