Film: Easeful Death

Truth sometimes finds its way into the movies—accidents happen—but when it comes to death, Hollywood is incapable of honesty, and the bigger the budget, the balder the lies. Real movie stars live forever or die nobly, uttering memorable last words and expiring with a smile; you never see the catheter, or smell the pus. Even the terrible simplicity of violent death is beyond the imaginative grasp of most directors. It has always seemed to me perfectly appropriate that when Janet Leigh took her last shower in Psycho, the blood running down the drain was really chocolate syrup.

I used to think that filmmakers lied about death in order to avoid upsetting the public, but now I think they’re more afraid of upsetting themselves. Wrinkled faces can be lifted, troublesome mistresses traded in for newer models, but there is no arguing with the penultimate reality of one’s own demise. Better, then, simply to ignore it—except that the baby boomers who run Hollywood can no longer pretend that old age is for other people. Most of them are old enough to have buried a parent or a friend, and after such knowledge there can be no forgetting. Instead, being typically self-obsessed boomers, they have started to make movies about death, the purpose of which is to tell themselves it’s no big deal.

In his Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge tells how Lord Beaverbrook sought comfort in the columns of the newspapers he owned:

When they told him there was not going to be a war, he having instructed them so to do, he felt reassured…. Another “must” paragraph entrusted to me was to point out that the bronchial complaint of which Sir James Barrie was reported to be dying, was known as “old man’s friend” because it was so painless. Again, the reason was clear; Beaverbrook, an asthmatic, expected to die of a similar complaint, and wanted to be reassured that it made for an easy death by reading it in the [Londoner’s] Diary.

I thought of this anecdote as I watched Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black, a three-hour film about death in which nothing bad happens to anyone good. Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a fabulously wealthy media mogul, is visited on the eve of his 65th birthday by Death (Brad Pitt). Instead of carting Parrish off on the spot, he decides to borrow the body of a handsome young man named Joe Black and spend a few days seeing how the other half lives. During that time, he falls in love with Parrish’s younger daughter, a doctor named Susan (Claire Forlani) who is engaged to Drew (Jake Weber), a venal yuppie who is Parrish’s right-hand man. Drew, it turns out, is secretly scheming to seize control of Parrish’s business empire. Joe, having tasted the delights of fleshly love, is tempted to leave Parrish behind and take his daughter instead. But duty is stronger than desire, and Parrish, having led what Joe calls “a first-rate life,” clearly rates a first-rate death. So instead of absconding with Susan, Joe lets her down gently and helps Parrish to foil Drew’s takeover bid, after which the two stroll into the sunset like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca.

Movie buffs will immediately spot Meet Joe Black as a knockoff of Death Takes a Holiday, though it must have cost at least a hundred times more to make, even allowing for inflation: Parrish owns a monstrously large estate from which he commutes by private helicopter to his monstrously large Manhattan penthouse, complete with indoor swimming pool, live-in staff and paintings galore (the Picassos are pretty good, the Rothko’s obviously phony). This being a movie and Bill Parrish being a capitalist, all that wealth ought to be ill-gotten, yet there is never a hint that Parrish is other than a paragon of virtue: He loves his children, treats his servants courteously and runs his company with integrity. After the first couple of hours, you catch yourself wishing he’d kick a dog.

I suppose it ought to be refreshing to see a film about a successful business-man who is also a good person, but this, after all, is also a film about death, and one fully expects that a 65-year-old man who has just been told that he is about to die will spend at least a few minutes expressing contrition about something in his past. Not this one. Indeed, Parrish is so spectacularly blameless that it doesn’t even occur to him to wonder what will happen after he dies. It is solely because he is played by Anthony Hopkins that he is even remotely believable—Hopkins’ haunted eyes leave no doubt that he has known his share of regret—but no amount of fine acting can paper over the fundamental implausibility of his behavior at so pivotal a moment in his life.

It doesn’t exactly help that Hopkins is playing opposite Brad Pitt, who looks like a male model and talks as if he were recovering from a botched lobotomy. Pitt’s scenes with Claire Forlani are, if possible, even worse, for her sharply pretty face and plain-spoken demeanor are so down to earth that everything he does looks vapid by contrast. Indeed, the entire cast, Pitt excepted, is so fine as to create the intermittent illusion that Meet Joe Black is better than it is; no sooner have Hopkins and Forlani led you on, though, than Thomas Newman’s treacly, whining score starts up again, and you suddenly realize that you’re being taken for a ride.

It is, I think, worth mentioning that the only good moment in Newman’s score, the haunting lament that plays faintly in the background as Parrish is awakened by his first twinge of angina pain, is plagiarized from Arvo Part’s Fratres. (“Plagiarized” is a strong word, but the borrowing is literal and Part receives no on-screen credit for it.) The irony, though certainly unintended, is nonetheless delicious: Part is a famously Christian composer, while Meet Joe Black is a comprehensively post-Christian movie, a fantasy about death in which no mention whatsoever is made of God, heaven, or hell. No God, no doubt, no sin, no regrets—just great sex, fake paintings, and buckets of money. That’s paradise, Hollywood style.

To be sure, Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly on dishonesty when it comes to death. Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful also contains no small amount of falsehood, though it at least takes death seriously, up to a point. In the end, though, it is fully as manipulative as Meet Joe Black, and in a way even more discreditable, since it is a far better movie.

Benigni, who directed and co-wrote the script with Vencenzo Cerami, is a popular Italian screen comedian who has also appeared in a few independent American films (including Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law and Night on Earth), but nothing about his resume gave any hint that he was up to making a movie about the Holocaust, much less a romantic comedy set in a concentration camp. In Life Is Beautiful, he plays a fast-talking waiter who woos and wins Dora, a severely beautiful schoolteacher (Nicoletta Braschi). But it is 1939 and Benigni is Jewish, and five years after his marriage, he and his young son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini) are snatched up by the Gestapo; Dora joins them voluntarily, and the whole family is shipped off to Germany to die. In order to spare the boy the agony of knowing his fate, Benigni pretends that their incarceration is a game, diverting Joshua with frantic slapstick and finally sacrificing himself so that his son may live.

The first part of Life Is Beautiful, the courtship of madcap Benigni and his lovely Dora, is fantastic in the best sense of the word, a sweetly comic operetta played out against a backdrop of Fascist bullying that is all the more unsettling for being understated. More than once I caught myself thinking of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, another movie set on the eve of World War II in which the comedy of manners is intensified by the knowledge that the game must soon come to an end. And once the action shifts to the concentration camp, any remaining doubts you may have about the film’s underlying premise are swept away by Benigni’s sheer energy, as well as his seeming willingness to confront the underlying grossness of his subject matter. The scene in which he carries the sleeping Joshua through a thick nighttime fog, suddenly to find himself staring at a mountain of corpses, is genuinely shocking: This is no Hogan’s Heroes.

Or is it? I cried at the end of Life Is Beautiful, but the more I thought about what I had seen, the more I was troubled by its unbelievability. Even granting that Benigni bills the film as a “simple fable,” thus allowing himself a certain amount of room to maneuver, it is hard to get around the fact that the script consists of one historical distortion after another. It is no exaggeration to say that nothing that happens in Life Is Beautiful (not even the marriage of Benigni and Dora, which would have been proscribed under the very Italian race laws that the film satirizes) could possibly have occurred in real life.

I’m not at all bothered by the fact that Benigni has sought to make a concentration-camp comedy. The literal truth of the Holocaust is so incommensurable that comedy might well be the best way to convey some tiny fraction of its horror. But such a film could only be made by an artist capable of facing that horror without flinching; Life Is Beautiful, by contrast, ends with the timely arrival of the ever-punctual Americans and the reunion of Joshua and Dora. Of course they should have died along with Benigni—that goes without saying—but such a denouement would have been too hard on the audience, and rare indeed is the clown who is willing to take that kind of chance. Moviegoers, even Italian ones, cannot bear very much reality.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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