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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 (two of them in fact), 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.
  • 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..."
  • Died on Their Birthday: Bill Parrish is scheduled to die on his 65th birthday. In the end, Joe reaps his soul after the father/daughter dance with Susan at his birthday party.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: Inverted. The form Joe takes is that of a man who was killed when he was hit by a truck at the beginning of the film. Right before he died, he was casually flirting with Susan. After Joe falls in love with Susan, he resurrects the man after reaping Bill so Susan can be with him.
  • 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.
    • An straight example in the middle of the film, that serves to show Joe's Character Development is the moment with the old woman in the hospital. She recognize who Joe is, but he's stays calm and affable with her all the time, reassuring her that Susan can bring her back to health, and even does relieve her of her pain for a while.
  • Face Death with Dignity: When the time comes, Bill is quite ready and agreeable to leaving with Joe.
  • First Kiss: Joe is absolutely overwhelmed the first time he kisses Susan. Her reaction is similar, completely smitten with him, enough that she dumps Drew and eventually sleeps with Joe. See Their First Time below as well.
  • 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: After the coffee shop guy is returned to Susan by Death, his lack of memory is simply described as a blur, and he doesn't seem confounded by it at all.
  • 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.
  • The Ghost: John Bontecou. His intent to acquire Bill's newspaper is the origin of the whole B-plot of the movie, but we just know about him and his manipulations through Drew.
  • Jerkass: Drew, full-stop. He basically weasels his way into Bill's good graces, then once he finds out the merger isn't happening, he goes behind Bill's back to try and oust him from the company so the merger will go through and make Drew filthy rich. Thankfully, Quince speaks up about what Drew did—knowing it might cause Bill to fire him and his wife to leave him—but luckily, he is met with love and understanding and the three of them then turn the tables on Drew, getting him fired and saving Bill's company in one blow.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Drew uses the information Quince unwittingly tells him about Joe as a reason to get Bill thrown out of the company so the merger can continue and make Drew rich. Well, he didn't count on Quince being a truly good, selfless person. Quince approaches Joe in tears about accidentally giving away information that allowed the board of directors to kick Bill out of his own company, but thankfully, Joe is kind and understanding and encourages Quince to come clean to Bill. Joe then thinks up a way out for all of them: he pretends that he is an IRS agent who was working with Bill and the FTC to expose insider trading and insider deals, meaning Drew is now qualified to be fired and he won't raise a fuss since he thinks that Joe is an IRS agent who could audit him or just straight up throw him in jail for what he did. Susan also dumps the creep, so he leaves this movie with absolutely nothing due to his own greedy actions.
  • 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.
  • 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 Accounting for Taste: It is very hard to understand from the audience's point of view why Susan even liked Drew in the first place. Granted, this is a romantic drama and so Joe is given a far more complex and favorable light as her new love interest, but Drew is honestly rude, apathetic to other people's problems, and later goes behind his boss' back to get the merger to go through and to oust him from his own company, which would make him even richer than he already is. He even strongarms Quince into it, knowing Quince is married to Bill's daughter and if it ever came to light, she'd be furious and possibly divorce him. When Susan does eventually break up with him, Drew is still nasty to her and makes us all wonder what on Earth made them get together at all, unless it was some offscreen pressure from Bill. It's a huge Catharsis Factor when Joe confronts Drew at the end and the merger falls through, leaving him single and jobless after all that he's done. And he's lucky Joe was nice enough not to simply kill him, which he could've done quite easily.
  • 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) as an evil Caribbean death spirit, "Obeah". He says that he's not Obeah, and he is just doing what needs to be done.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Surprisingly, there is a little scary moment after Joe and Bill confront Drew, pretending that Joe is an IRS agent who clocked Drew's illegal activity. He threatens Drew not to call up the IRS to verify the information (naturally, since he's lying) and if Drew doesn't cooperate, Joe mentions he'll "spend eternity in a place with no doors." He doesn't describe it any further than that, but whether Death is referring to Hell or Purgatory, either way, the way he says it is terrifying. Drew listens and hastily exits afterward.
  • 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.
  • Romantic False Lead: Drew for Susan. It's also a bit of a wonder how on Earth he landed her at all, except that maybe Bill went to bat for him. Drew is overly ambitious, unsympathetic, and frankly rude at certain points in the story. It's honestly a good thing Joe came along, as it motivates Susan to break up with the jerk about halfway through the movie due to his jealous anger at Joe and at her.
  • Running Gag: Peanut butter, of all things! Joe has his first taste of the stuff at Bill's home and immediately falls in love with it, to the point that later during one of their fancy dinners, he asks for a whole jar to just eat it straight. Susan finds it adorable, to the annoyance of Drew. The last final funny bit is at the extravagant birthday dinner celebration, a passing waiter checks on Joe and he asks if there is any peanut butter. The waiter looks quite confused, but politely tells him he doesn't have any peanut butter.
  • 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.
  • Spoiled Sweet: As shown to us, the Parrish family is stinking rich. Just look at all the things being prepared for that 65th birthday anniversary! But despite the fact that they are clearly deeply wealthy, Susan is an adorable, kind-hearted woman and so is her older sister (who is a bit neurotic, but is shown to be a good person same as her younger sister.) Bill is also surprisingly grounded and understanding despite being as rich as he is, and given the way he speaks of their mother, it's implied their mother was a lovely woman too.
  • 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!"
  • Take a Third Option: Quince inadvertently provides the info that gets Bill ousted from the company. He's in tears about what to do since both of his choices now suck: either tell Bill the truth and risk being fired and his wife (Bill's eldest daughter) divorcing him or say nothing and Bill is torn from his own company that he built from the ground up by himself to provide for his lovely family. At a loss of what to do, Quince eventually approaches Joe for advice. Joe warmly tells him that he's one of his favorites and comforts him, telling him to confess the truth to Bill so that they can come up with a plan. And they do—Joe pretends to be an IRS agent and effectively scares Drew out of any thought of retaliation and also gets him fired, so Quince gets to keep his job and his wife and the company will now never merge with Bontacue's, keeping Bill's legacy intact for his loved ones and coworkers.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: the first thing we see Joe taste is a spoonful of peanut butter and, later in the film, he is seen to have taken a liking to it.
  • Their First Time: Susan and Joe's first time making love is treated with all the respect and significance that it should be, as Joe being Death means he's never experienced pleasure before. It's an outright beautiful scene. What's more is Susan enjoys it just as much as he does despite his inexperience, as he becomes very passionate with her.
  • The Three Certainties in Life: "...the truth is, joining John Bontecou is every bit as certain as death and taxes."
  • The Unreveal: Susan's knowledge of what is happening by the movie's end is all implied. She seems to understand that Joe is Death, judging by the look on her face when he asks who he is and she looks into his eyes - just like Bill had done in the beginning, when he was asked the same and saw in Joe's eyes that he was Death. But Susan simply states that "You're Joe," choosing to hold on to the human side she has come to know. When she goes to see the fireworks and Bill stays behind, her farewell makes it clear she knows he is going to die. Later when the original Joe comes back to her, she knows that her father is dead without having seen his body. But she never explicitly states that she knows that Joe is Death.
  • 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.