" We must whup Mr. Tooth Decay "
— Muhammad Ali, When We Were Kings

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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This movie walks a fine line between “worth it” and not. On the one hand, the concept is fertile, with lots of rich opportunities. The movie also stars Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt, two very fine actors. On the other hand, some may find its length intimidating (it’s nearly three hours long). The movie also feels very uneven, with flashes of solid filmmaking interspersed with cliché and melodrama.

The concept, based on a movie, which is in turn based on a play, is that Death decides to inhabit an Earthly host (Pitt, who is proving to be more than just a pretty face) to see what this “life” business is all about. Death needs a guide, so when William Parrish’s (Hopkins) number comes up, he makes a deal. William will show Death life, and in turn, William gets an extension. For as long as Death stays entertained, William may continue to live.

William finds it difficult to run his business with “Joe Black” hanging around. To make matters worse, “Joe” falls in love with William’s daughter Susan (played by the ever-squinting Claire Forlani). Death becomes the biggest nuisance William has ever faced.

At work, things come to a head when a ruthless (and horribly written) member of the board acts to remove William on account of his intimate counsel from this mysterious Mr. Black. At home, the conflict hits a zenith when it becomes clear that Death is possessively in love with Susan, and may kill her in order to be with her.

William must put his affairs back in order at work, and convince Death not to take his daughter, all before his time runs out on the evening of his 65th birthday.

When I saw this, I was in the mood for a nice afternoon-killing movie, and it really hit the spot. But I could easily see being frustrated with the film’s erratic pace were the situation different.

Also, I was duly impressed by some flashes of brilliance. Quincy (Jeffrey Tambor), a friend of William’s, confesses to a betrayal and he feels awful. The performance is very good, and the writing is excellent and heartfelt. Likewise, William’s relationship to his two daughters is written extremely well and with great honesty. William has a favorite daughter and everyone knows it, but everyone politely pretends the difference doesn’t exist. The subtlety and humanity of the situation ring true.

And yet, there are two-dimensional characters and clichéd moments in the film that show lazy and uninspired writing (like the too-evil usurper who turns the too-gullible board of directors against William) . The film credits four screenwriters — Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, and Bo Goldman — and the unevenness of the film reflects it.

This film lies somewhere between being surprisingly good and being another rusty piece of junk. I was lucky that when I saw it I was in a fairly receptive mood. For anyone else, I’ll just say “watch at your own risk,” and “you might be surprised.”

P.S. Be warned that there is a sudden, shocking, and yes, gratuitous (i.e., uncalled-for by the plot) car accident. It was the most horrifying, realistic special effect I’ve seen in a drama, and it took me completely by surprise. Not the best scene for younger, or even some of us older, viewers.