Think of it as Death Styles of the Rich and Famous. William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is a graciously powerful and highly principled media tycoon - wealthier than Ted Turner, handsomer than Rupert Murdoch - who has somehow remained a paragon of virtue while amassing his millions. Parrish is such a prince among men that even Death, in the guise of a handsome stranger named Joe Black (Brad Pitt), is greatly impressed. When Joe pays a visit to Parrish's posh Manhattan penthouse, to claim the tycoon just a few days before Parrish's 65th birthday, he offers to delay his grim reaping. In return, however, Parrish must guide Joe through the unfamiliar territory of earthly joys and sorrows. That is, he wants the tycoon to teach him what it means to be a human being.
Unfortunately, Parrish is an easily distracted instructor, and Joe is an exceptionally slow learner, throughout the tediously protracted three hours of Meet Joe Black. This lavishly produced but dramatically sluggish fantasy is loosely based on Death Takes a Holiday, a 1920s play that previously was filmed as a 78-minute feature in 1934, and a 90-minute tv movie in 1971. Even with the help of four credited screenwriters, director Martin Brest is hard-pressed to sustain interest as he elongates the wispy plot to epic length. Perhaps that is why so many scenes have characters punctuating their dialogue with pauses pregnant enough to produce quintuplets. The actors simply don't have enough words to fill all the time they're on camera.
Time passes slowly, and for the most part uneventfully, as the amazingly composed Parrish introduces Joe to everyone around him as a protege and all-purpose adviser. Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), Parrish's first-born daughter, is too busy planning a big blow-out for her father's birthday to take note of the newcomer. Quince (Jeffrey Tambor), her cheery but clueless husband, simply accepts Joe at face value, but Drew (Jake Weber), Parrish's ambitious second-in-command, is instantly suspicious, and blames Joe for influencing Parrish's decision to reject a merger offer tendered by a far less princely media mogul.
Susan (Claire Forlani), the tycoon's younger daughter, is shocked and confused when Joe is introduced at the table during a family meal. And with good reason: Although he appears to be the same charming fellow she met at a coffee shop, Joe gives no indication that he remembers who she is. (Actually, Joe merely borrowed a convenient corpse after the charming fellow was killed by a car.) After a while, however, Joe's indifference gives way to curiosity, which in turn gives way to something like romantic yearning. Joe doesn't entirely understand what is happening to him - but he knows what he likes, especially when he and Susan savor the sort of dreamily idyllic lovemaking that has become a staple of romantic fantasy movies. Not surprisingly, Parrish isn't pleased by any of this. He fully realizes that there's only one way for Susan to live happily ever after with this guy, and it won't be life as mortals know it.
Ironically, Meet Joe Black comes to life only when Hopkins gets a chance to rage against death. William Parrish is more of a concept than a character, an idealized notion of a saintly zillionaire who places social responsibility above personal gain. But Hopkins is able to convey enough vigor and humor - along with a few flashes of a ferocious temper - to make the guy seem recognizably human, if not altogether believable.
On the other hand, Brad Pitt is almost entirely unbelievable in a weirdly misconceived role. It doesn't help much that Brest wants to have it both ways: Joe is a sweetly innocent idiot savant in some scenes, a coldly brilliant and imperious autocrat in others. It helps even less than Pitt lacks the necessary gravity and imposing screen presence to make us accept Joe Black as the final authority in matters of life and death. When Parrish first meets Joe, the tycoon dismisses his unwelcome visitor as "just a kid in a suit." Pitt does precious little to refute that first impression.