It is curious to see what fame does to young actors. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are currently the screen’s biggest heartthrobs. Both are blond
boy-men with delicate features and hairless chests, unthreatening idols for adolescent eyes. Pitt appears to have accepted his sexsymbol status with a bored equanimity. As the Himalayan hunk in Seven Years in Tibet—and now as the debonair mystery guest in Meet Joe Black—he behaves more like a model than an actor. In the wake of Titanic, however, DiCaprio seems wary of being typecast as a glamor boy. First, he flirted with, then rejected, the idea of playing a serial killer in American Psycho. Now, he pops up as a ruthless parody of a spoiled superstar in Woody Allen’s Celebrity. Neither Meet Joe Black nor Celebrity is a great movie. Both are shambling, indulgent fantasies. But with his brief turn in Celebrity—literally 15 minutes of fame—DiCaprio puts out more energy than Pitt does in all three hours of Meet Joe Black.
Celebrity is a satirical comedy about fame and love—two things that have been scandalously intertwined in Allen’s own life. And after the sordid burlesque of last year’s Deconstructing Harry, it is more palatable fare. Allen does not appear on-screen. Instead, Kenneth Branagh serves as his surrogate, mimicking Woody’s accent, his stammering mannerisms—his entire personality, in fact—with such uncanny accuracy that it almost
Shot in black and white, the movie skewers the pretensions of film-making, fashion, art, television and publishing. At the centre of its ensemble cast, Branagh plays Lee Simon, a Manhattan journalist who writes about celebrities and craves a piece of the glitz. A failed novelist and an aspiring screenwriter, he promotes his own career by sucking up to the stars. He is a pathetic and un-
remarkable-looking loser, but—as so often happens in Woodyworld— beautiful women throw themselves at him left and right. They include a glamorous movie queen (Melanie Griffith), an oversexed supermodel (Charlize Theron), a book editor (Famke Jansen) and a young waitress (Winona Ryder).
DiCaprio appears as a hedonistic superstar who trashes his hotel room and his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), then drags Simon off to Atlantic City for a night of boxing,
gambling and group sex—while the writer vainly tries to pitch him a script.
Through lust or self-loathing, Simon makes a mess of every opportunity that comes his way. His divorced wife, a bitter neurotic played by Judy Davis, has better luck. She meets a television executive (Joe Mantegna) who appears to be the perfect guy. But this is no love story. With a maze of cameos (Erica Jong, Isaac Mizrahi, Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco), Allen takes scattershot aim at celebrity—as a zoo and a prison.
The film is riddled with witty bits and pieces. But at its heart is a sad desperation, spelled out in skywriting smoke above Manhattan in the opening and closing scenes—the word “HELP.” An SOS from the top.
Meet Joe Black offers much less to think about. There are two reasons why people might want to see it: Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. But anyone who braves this threehour miasma simply to ogle the former or admire the latter should be warned: Meet Joe Black turns suspension of disbelief into an extreme sport. First, you have to believe Brad Pitt is Death. That’s right, the Grim Reaper. But the Grim Reaper as virginal boy toy—an idiot savant with a sweet tooth who is experiencing everything for the first time.
Lifted from the 1934 movie Death Takes a Holiday, the premise is even wilder than the casting. Death borrows a human body—a victim of a car crash—so he can enjoy a little break on earth before ushering his next victim to the Other Side—a media tycoon named William Parrish (Hopkins). Death tells Parrish his days are numbered, then offers to postpone the inevitable if he can just hang out with him for a while. Adopting the alias Joe Black, he moves into the tycoon’s mansion, goes to his board meetings, and falls in love with his daughter, a doctor babe named Susan (Clair Forlani).
Meanwhile, her villainous boyfriend (Jake Weber) is plotting to destroy Parrish’s company. And his pawn is Parrish’s obsequious son-in-law (Jeffrey Tambor doing a pale version of his Hank Kingsley character from The Larry Sanders Show). But the corporate premise is as far-fetched as the cosmic one: picture a media mogul who actually believes that “reporting the news is a privilege and a responsibility that is not exploitable.” Hopkins deserves a medal for being not only credible but compelling in this lazy
fable, which does not make sense even on its own terms. Whether contemplating the pleasure of a cold lamb and cilantro sandwich or navigating a ridiculous line of dialogue (“I want you to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish”), no actor better conveys the sad and intricate pain of mortality.
But Pitt’s character is a bad joke—the Glib Reaper exploring earthly sensations like an adorable space alien. He even develops an infatuation with peanut butter (a
homage to ET’s love for Reeses Pieces?). Portraying a man who is not really “there,” Pitt sinks into the vacancy of the role all too readily. The movie should be called Brad Pitt Takes a Holiday. Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman) directs on cruise control, turning love, sex and death into picturesque but senseless mush. That someone allowed him to stretch this un-epic piece of whimsy into a three-hour whopper is even more baffling than the movie itself. Joe Blacks slow death is not worth the wait. □
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