In Fairy-Tale 'Meet Joe Black' Death Overstays His Holiday

'Meet Joe Black" was inspired by "Death Takes a Holiday," a classic play with an unusual premise: What if the figure of Death were not a horror-movie monster but an appealing young man who enjoys a vacation like everybody else, and takes advantage of one to explore the everyday world and fall in love with one of its inhabitants?

Most of the movie takes place on the estate of a ridiculously rich executive whose life has approached its final days. Death arrives to take him away, only to be seduced by the luxurious lifestyle.

Taking the body of an unfortunate young man who's just fallen for one of the executive's daughters, Death introduces himself to the tycoon and makes an offer he can't refuse: Let me enjoy your pleasures along with you and your family, and I'll spare you until I get tired of it all. What he doesn't count on is his own susceptibility to earthly love, which rears its head the moment he sees that enchanting daughter.

"Meet Joe Black" boasts two of today's most compelling actors, Anthony Hopkins as the magnate and Brad Pitt as his mysterious guest. Solid performances also come from Jeffrey Tambor and Jake Weber as the tycoon's business associates - one loyal and one not - and from Claire Forlani and Marcia Gay Harden as his daughters.

The movie's dramatic action is smart and effective most of the way through, and director Martin Brest deserves credit for refusing to rush the story or pump it up with frequent gimmicks and effects.

But the picture overstays its welcome, rambling on for nearly three hours. Succumbing to its worst possibilities, the last 30 minutes of the film is filled with cloying images and emotionally exaggerated music. Eventually, the story throws its own premises out the window. The finale doesn't make a shred of sense even on its own fairy-tale terms.

Brest is best known for Hollywood hits like "Scent of a Woman" and "Midnight Run." But it's worth remembering that he started his career in the 1970s with the dreamlike drama "Hot Tomorrows" and the poignant comedy "Going in Style," two of the most original films ever made about death-related subjects.

"Meet Joe Black" starts off as a worthy successor to them, but loses its way so badly that even fantasy-lovers are likely to find it less than enlivening.

* Rated R; contains a few four-letter words, a schmaltzy sex scene, and a moment of shocking violence.

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