Somewhere in the netherworld between being a "remake" and merely "inspired by" Mitchell Leisen's 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black is the story of Death personified. Death takes over the body of Brad Pitt's unnamed character, later donned "Joe Black" by William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins). Although the motivation isn't specified but implied in this film, Death wishes to experience the life he normally takes away--he wants to see what it's like to be human. He chooses Parrish to be his guide because Parrish is a hugely successful media mogul who has conviction, strong "moral fiber" and insight on life. Compounding the situation, Parrish's daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani), is a woman whom Brad Pitt's unnamed character met in a coffee shop that morning and had an instant mutual attraction with. Black sticks close by William's side through much of the film, creating difficult situations at a time when Parrish's company is trying to deal with a financially attractive but ethically unsavory takeover bid, and he also puts the boil to somewhat strained familial relationships.
First, a word of warning. This is a very long film (3 hours), and it tends to be very slowly paced. If you are averse to either, or if you do not like any of the three principalsPitt, Hopkins and Forlani--I'd advise you to avoid the film.
For me, I never think that a film's length is a problem in itself. As long as the film works, I'd be happy with it lasting 4, 5, even 12 hours or more--heck, I even gladly sat through Gettysburg (1993) in the theater. There have been films I've thought were too long (such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962), but it's contextual, not related to actual running time.
Helmer Martin Brest directs with a lot of deliberation. Lines of dialogue and responses are stretched out to "infinity and taken to the depth of forever". The camera gives us lots of lingering gazes. There is little to no "action" in the film. Much of it is similar to David Lynch's famed pregnant pauses. Some people hate that style. I love it (although I love other styles, too--I like variety), and for me, the pacing makes this film seem much shorter than its actual running time. It's the complete opposite of the pacing of, say, Medallion (2003), which is interesting given that both films feature Forlani. It's also interesting to note that Brest's career seems to match the pacing of Meet Joe Black. He's taken 2, 4, 5 and 6 years between films. Obviously, Brest is not in a rush.
If you watch Meet Joe Black immediately after watching Death Takes a Holiday, as I did this time around, a few things might strike you as odd and slightly negative at first. The principal difference that had this initial effect on me was the change in the primary romantic relationship--between Joe and Susan (and between Prince Sirki (Frederic March) and Grazia (Evelyn Venable) in the original). In the original, it's ambiguous whether Grazia doesn't recognize Sirki for what he really is all along. She at least never meets him as Sirki rather than Death-as-Sirki. It creates interesting philosophical scenarios about humankind's conception and fear of death; Grazia, who is a bit aloof all along, may be embracing death rather than fearing it, not as something negative, but more metaphysically, as inherent in the idea of life.
In Meet Joe Black, Susan falls for Pitt as another character first. It removes all of the philosophical points about one's attitude towards death (with the exception of William, who is the only one who knows the truth, even in the end, and who implicitly goes through vacillating feelings about death). However, despite my initial hesitation on the change, I tried to remember my commitment to judge each film on its own terms rather than its relation to other works, and I realized that the relationship set up here is interesting for another reason--it explores public identity in relationships and the tensions that arise through dynamicism of that public identity. That's a theme throughout the film, not just in its romantic relationships.
Pitt has often been criticized for his performance here, but in my opinion, it's perfect for the character(s)--just as good in its own way as March's turn as Sirki in the original. Once Pitt as Death takes over "Joe Black's" body, he _must_ change his persona in the way he does. He's supposed to be a supernatural being who normally relates to the world in a completely different way, but now he's suddenly made corporeal. He doesn't know what to do as a human. As an entity, he's not daft, lacking power or unknowledgeable about many things, but he's incredibly naive and awkward as a thing of flesh. He's not used to relating to the world in that way. He's not used to making facial expressions. He's never tasted food, and so on. The change he undergoes in the beginning and end of the film is amazing and shows just how skilled Pitt is.
Hopkins and Forlani are of course no slouches, either. Hopkins' ability to go from understated and elegant to manic is put to good use; the role seems tailor-made for him. Forlani, who has a very unusual but intriguingly beautiful face that always looks a bit pouty, gets to pout even more, creating a bizarrely complex but effective character. The rest of the primary cast is just as good. The end result is a strangely dysfunctional family with a lot of depth.
While I can see people preferring Death Takes a Holiday to this film, for me, Meet Joe Black is slightly better. It's much more epic, of course, and that scope, plus the incredible score by Thomas Newman, pushes its emotional effectiveness up a notch. But make sure you do not miss either film. Both are excellent and unusual.