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Film / Meet Joe Black

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"Careful, Bill, you'll give yourself a heart attack and ruin my vacation."

Meet Joe Black is a 1998 American romantic fantasy film directed and produced by Martin Brest, and starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Claire Forlani. It is loosely a remake of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday.

Death decides it's time to experience some life for himself, so he grabs the body of a young man (Pitt) who was hit by a car while crossing the street, and casually inserts himself into the life of a well-to-do businessman named Bill Parrish (Hopkins), who is scheduled to die on his 65th birthday (which is only a few short days away). Though initially - and understandably - reluctant to play host and tour guide to Death, Bill agrees not to tell anyone who "Joe" actually is on the condition that he leaves Bill's family alone at the end of their venture. Complications arise when it turns out the young man whose body Death took was flirting with Bill's daughter Susan (Forlani) only a few minutes before he died, and she and Joe begin to develop feelings for one another.


Tropes present include:

  • Audience Surrogate: Joe, particularly at the beginning (where he serves as the audience's exploratory vehicle within Bill Parrish's estate), and the end, when he tears up watching Bill and Susan's dance, and acts as the receptacle for Bill's summative reflections, parroting the anticipated reaction of the audience watching the end of the movie.
  • Blunt "Yes": "Am I interrupting?" "Yes."
  • Brief Accent Imitation: Done marvelously when Joe speaks with a very sick little old lady from the islands. Possibly Pitt's best accent performance other than Snatch.. It's almost disorienting when he switches back to his normal voice afterwards.
  • The Comically Serious: Death has a surprisingly good sense of humor. So does Bill Parrish, all things considered.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The body Death chooses just happens to belong to the man who was flirting with Susan before he died.
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  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Drew, who is dealing behind Bill's back with a competitor in order to secure a lucrative merger for the company against Bill's wishes, and manipulates the board of directors to get Bill fired and wrest control of the company from him.
  • Creepy Monotone: Joe speaks this way almost all the time. Particularly unsettling when Bill is yelling at him and Joe calmly reminds him who he's dealing with.
  • Death Takes a Holiday: Though a loose remake of the Trope Namer, it subverts it: Joe is still doing his reaping while he hangs out with the Parrishes through multitasking. He describes it as "When you're shaving, you're also thinking, making decisions..."
  • Dramatic Pause: " agent for the Internal Revenue Service."
  • Don't Fear The Reaper: Averted at first; when he enters the movie, Joe is incredibly menacing, and essentially threatens Bill into going along with things whether he wants to or not. However, he gradually becomes more friendly and helpful as the film progresses, and his time as a human gives him greater empathy for them, ending the movie firmly as this trope.
  • Face Death with Dignity: When the time comes, Bill is quite ready and agreeable to leaving with Joe.
  • First Time Feeling: Joe has no experience with love whatsoever and so falling for Susan completely overwhelms him.
  • Fish out of Water: Death is very out of place among humans.
  • Foreshadowing: The film opens with a slow pan across a tree to reveal Bill's estate... the same tree that Joe waits beneath, at the end of the movie.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Very comfortable with. Death takes a nice human form, naturally.
  • The Grim Reaper: Joe. He's portrayed as an affable Badass in a Nice Suit in this incarnation.
  • Hand Wave:
    • Why did Death, after witnessing all of human history and everything beyond, pick a rich, white American businessman as his guide to life? Given the entire planet to choose from, why would he spend his time exclusively in an apartment in Manhattan and an estate on Rhode Island? The film's hand-wave is that Death was intrigued by the ineffable life-guidance given by Bill to his daughter. The device is successful strictly on the basis of Anthony Hopkins' badassery.
    • Also, after the coffee shop guy is returned to Susan by Death, and the only explanation he offers for his total shift in personality and immediate-onset amnesia is "It's all a blur": she asks, incredulously, "That's it?" Her question echoes the incredulity assumed on the part of the audience, who are expected to swallow her acceptance of a totally inexplicable personality-turnabout, in the interest of a happy ending. The above only needs handwaved if Susan doesn't know that Joe was really Death. The movie is a bit vague on the point, but he must have revealed his true identity to her (at the party when he was staring at her intensely), because how else would she have known her father was dead? Her confusion when Coffee Shop Guy comes back over the bridge can be explained as her thinking it was Joe had come back, and she only realizes it's Coffee Shop Guy after he specifically refers to events at the coffee shop.
  • Genre Throwback: Its script could be considered one to the subtle, theatrical, more dialog-based cinema of the 1940s-1950s. Not in vain, it is based on a play and film from the 1930s.
  • Jerkass: Drew, full-stop.
  • Literal-Minded: Death.
    Drew: "You're talking through your hat. You're offering me a deal because you've got no proof."
    Bill (Joe glances at him as he speaks): "Proof? We've got plenty of proof."
    Death/Joe: "And he's talking through his lips."
  • Look Both Ways: The body Death takes. Ouch.
  • Magical Negro: The old Jamaican woman in the hospital comes close to being this when she and Joe interact.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • "Death and taxes."
    • "Multiply it by infinity and take it to the depth of forever and you will still have barely glimpsed what I am talking about."
    • Also, "May I kiss you?" and "I'm still here."
    • "What do we do now?" "It'll come to us."
  • Mood Whiplash: After Susan and Brad Pitt's character from the coffee shop part ways, they walk away down the street, occasionally sneaking wistful glances at the other's retreating form over their shoulder. Pitt's character slows to a stop and turns around in the middle of an intersection to watch as she disappears around the corner at the far end of the street... then gets nailed by a passing car, flies into the air, and gets hit by a second car going the opposite direction.
  • No Name Given:
    • The young man whose body Joe is using. He's only billed as "Young Man in Coffee Shop".
    • The sick old woman in the hospital who becomes Joe's confidant is only billed as "Jamaican Woman".
  • Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: The old woman in the hospital recognizes Joe (presumably because she's close to dying) and calls him "evil". He says that he's not evil, he's just doing what needs to be done.
  • Oh, Crap!: Drew, in the "Death and Taxes" scene.
  • Punny Name: Come on! Bill Parrish in a movie about death?
  • Precision F-Strike: "You may be the pro, Joe, but I know who you are, and you're all fucked up."
  • Re-Cut: The airline version shortens in fifty minutes, mostly by cutting some of the corporate wars - Martin Brest protested (thus it's credited to Alan Smithee - and it's not his first time) but apparently it was praised by those who saw it.
  • The Reveal: In-universe, after leaving all of Bill's associates wondering about him all movie, Joe finally "comes clean" in the "death and taxes" scene. Of course, he's not exactly truthful, making this some kind of weird reverse meta-subversion.
  • Satellite Love Interest:
    • Susan. She's defined by her relationship with Drew, then her relationship with Joe, and, of course, her relationship with Bill. In fact, besides her work at the hospital, the only other thing we know about her is that she seems to remind Bill of his wife; essentially, that she's important to her dad because she reminds him of another shallow love interest.
    • Ironically Joe is this from Susan's perspective. All she knows about him is he's a bit unusual, works with her dad, and really likes peanut butter.
    Susan: I'm in love with a man. But I don't know who he is, where he's going, or when.
  • Scenery Porn: The movie was shot on location on New York and Rhode Island. This is put to good use in all the exteriors, specially on the party on Bill's state on the final fourth of the film. All the interiors also have very valuable and pretty artwork, and beautifully designed rooms, to the point that you could consider the film to have a Excuse Plot to show all the opulence of the Parrishes.
  • Sense Freak: Joe Black develops quite a fondness for peanut butter.
  • Smug Snake: Drew, who has been scheming behind Bill's back (see Corrupt Corporate Executive) while dating his daughter.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance
  • Stealth Pun: Joe posing as an IRS agent would almost count, if he didn't say the punchline out loud. It's still worth mentioning, though.
  • Straw Loser: Quince, relative to Bill, of course. He's also Bill's Hero-Worshipper. But there are subtle hints and then big shouts of his true depth of character. It's incredibly touching when Joe tells him "You're one of my favorites."
  • Suddenly Shouting: I DON'T CARE IF YOU LOVE HIM
  • The Three Certainties in Life: "...the truth is, joining John Bontecou is every bit as certain as death and taxes."
  • The Unreveal: It's never explicitly stated how much Susan knows by the time the film ends. It's all implied. She seems to grasp that Joe might be Death, judging by the look on her face when he asks her who he is, but then the expression changes, which implies she might have denied the idea, as most people would. However, when Joe and her father walk off together, when she meets the original Joe, she realizes her father is gone. That, perhaps, is one of the film's best qualities—that it's never explicitly said.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Drew is tricked into believing he's this relative to Bill, when, in fact, he's an inferior Evil Counterpart.
    • In fact, Joe/Death is Bill's actual Worthy Opponent, at least initially.