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Meet Joe Black (1998): A Minimalist, Philosophical Film About Life and Love

Meet Joe Black is an interesting romantic drama with a supernatural twist and was inspired by Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday. Directed by Martin Brest, Meet Joe Black was his follow up after winning a Golden Globe for Scent of a Woman. Reuniting Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, the film also stars Claire Forlani and Marcia Gay Harden.

The Story

Love is passion, obsession, someone you can’t live without. I say, fall head over heels. Find someone you can love like crazy and who will love you the same way back.

Meet Joe Black has William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), an almost 65-year-old businessman at its center. Bill is an astute capitalist with a loving family. However, his health is in decline and his company under siege from its competitors. By his side are his two loving daughters, Susan (Claire Forlani) and Allison. The former is the apple of her father’s eye and the latter is quite aware that she isn’t the favourite, but loves her father wholeheartedly nonetheless.

Susan is involved with Drew (Jake Weber), her father’s business associate who Bill doesn’t want as a future son in law. Instead, he encourages Susan to“find someone you can love like crazy, and who’ll love you the same way back.”


Prophetic words as Susan meets a handsome stranger in a café and they instantly connect. Without exchanging names, Susan and the stranger part ways, both feeling smitten and excited about the future. Unbeknownst to Susan, the young man is killed soon after their meeting and his body is inhabited by Death (AKA A Grim Reaper).

Death visits William and confirms his time on earth is up. William, however, is not ready to say his final goodbyes. As a bargain of sorts, Death agrees to postpone William’s death in exchange for allowing him to learn about and experience life. Death, named Joe Black (Brad Pitt), enters the Parish household and becomes William’s shadow. Joe is also reunited with Susan. Matters are complicated as Bill’s death draws closer and Joe discovers love and human emotion while cloaked as the grim reaper.


Brad Pitt, Meet Joe Black
Brad Pitt, Universal Pictures

In my opinion, Meet Joe Black has the potential to be quite a divisive film. I think viewers will both respond to it and therefore enjoy the romance and stillness of the film. Or on the contrary, find it slow, dull and convoluted. I can see an argument for both perspectives. Meet Joe Black rests I believe less on the premise (which is quite absurd if I’m being honest) and more in the performances. In this film, Anthony Hopkins easily runs circles around every other actor. He is masterful in his portrayal of a man who understands that his time on earth is limited. He is thoughtful, measured and yet layered with passion and determination.

I love you now. I love you always.

Alongside him, Brad Pitt has the role that grounds the film. Meet Joe Black hinges on his ability to play Death, to imbue the character with depth and allow the audience to connect with him as he experiences life, emotions and even food for the first time. Unfortunately, Pitt’s performance is hit and miss. There are times when he’s a delight to watch and there are others where his stillness feels awkward and uncomfortable. As an actor, he seems overly aware of his performance, the cadence of his voice and his physical movements. As a viewer, I felt that awareness and at times it removed me from the film.


Despite that, however, his chemistry with Claire Forlani is sweet and Susan’s growing emotions which parallel Joe’s does captivate and draw you in. It’s a complicated dynamic as Death discovers love and has no reference for what to do with the emotions. In addition, William knows who Joe is and is also helpless to stop a romance he knows is doomed.

Besides the central dramatic tension, Meet Joe Black also has a subplot involving the hostile takeover of William’s company, as well as the intricate relationship between William and his eldest daughter. Both these elements are underdeveloped in the film and the takeover aspect, in particular, might have been dropped completely. Drew is very thinly drawn and his demise serves only as a foil to Joe’s development as a character. Marcia Gay Harden is wonderful though and manages to play out a few very emotional, memorable scenes for herself.

Final Thoughts

Meet Joe Black is romantic at its core. It’s emotional and manages to tug quite effectively at the heartstrings. The pacing of the film, as well as uneven performances from the cast, however, make it less memorable. Despite that, Meet Joe Black was one of my favourite films in 1998 and I own it on DVD.

If you haven’t seen Meet Joe Black, I would recommend giving it a go. The premise is quite unique, even if the execution isn’t perfect.

Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani are also incredibly beautiful on screen. So if you needed some additional encouragement, their perfect aesthetic is a sight to behold.

Where to Watch: Meet Joe Black is available for sale on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon. It also streams on Amazon.

Content Note: Meet Joe Black is rated PG-13 for an accident scene, some sexuality, and brief strong language.

Have you watched Meet Joe Black? What did you think? Comment below and let me know!  

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures, City Light Films


“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful



“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My

feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me

to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

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By on January 22nd, 2018

About Naazneen Samsodien

Naazneen hails from South Africa and has spent most of her life steeped quite happily in fandom. A corporate Human Resource professional by day, she completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology and is currently completing her MPhil at the University of Cape Town. She spends her nights in a parallel universe where her creative pursuits find meaningful outlets. When she is not doing research, writing fanfiction or reading the latest novel for her book club, she is voraciously consuming information on pop culture and global socio-political issues - or quite simply, travelling the world. She loves words, fangirling shamelessly, Mr. Darcy and rugged beards... a lot.

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6 thoughts on “Meet Joe Black (1998): A Minimalist, Philosophical Film About Life and Love”

    • ITA. The ending was a little weird for me. But then working with the premise, its best to just go with it 😀
      I love Allison’s speech too. Its so heartbreaking

  1. I’ve loved this film since I first saw it many years ago. I’ve watched at least 3 times but its been a while but thanks to your review I am reminded that its time to see it again. I loved the unusual premise. I think the relationship between father/daughters is great to watch. And I love the yearning between the characters that Brad and Claire play. I just went with it and didn’t question the premise. Thank you for your thoughts on it.

  2. I have a huge soft spot for this film. I think the exquisite string harmony that plays over the most poignant scenes is worth mentioning. It really elevates the emotions. Well mine anyway. I just rewatched it, mostly for the strings. As you say, Hopkins is close to his best. Pitt is harder to classify, it’s a very difficult role. He must be alien in his skin but compelling enough to draw you in. If he is too childlike, his relationship with Susan becomes creepy and weird, that it doesn’t, for the most part, is a testament to he and Forlani. And just because I love her so much in this film: to borrow a modern meme “find someone who looks at you the way Claire Forlani looks at everything”.

  3. I saw this film pretty much the week it came out in theaters in 1998.
    I remembering admiring so many things, and yet feeling it missed the mark, and feeling that the end was melodramatically overdone and over-long.I do not feel that way anymore.

    I think this film is an absolute masterpiece, one of the best films of the 1990’s, and quickly becoming a personal favorite. Once you surrender to what it is, and not fight it’s length or pacing or unusualness, chances are it will fill your soul, and keep you thinking about it (and mentally humming the musical score) for days and days after.I’d seen it probably 3 times:  upon release, and twice after, at least once with my dad (who has been an admirer of the film and the performances of the ensemble cast since we saw it that November in ’98).  I’ve often wondered why he connected so strongly with it all this time, and now, I understand.

    Truth is, I’ve watched this film 4 1/2 times in the past 10 days.  Starting with watching the latter half, then watching from beginning-to-end later that night (when it came on cable again).  Then 3 more times this past week.  It has haunted me, and distracted me, and I’m just plain fascinated with my sudden new-found obsession with all that it has to offer.
    I’m not sick of it, and plan to watch it again relatively soon.  In the meantime, I chose to search information on it, so I came across your review here.
    In that same internet search, I seem to have discovered a 4 hour and 20 minute version available on DVD.  Unless that is a typo.  I hope not, because more of this movie is just fine with me.

    It’s stunningly good, and now that I’ve fully embraced it, the reason I’ve watched it so much this past week-and-a-bit, is to relive and to truly relish the moments between all the great characters.
    Which makes me realize, the deliberate length and consistently-slow pacing is not just to accommodate the never-ending great acting/editing choices, but to aesthetically match the philosophical content of the plot:  To enjoy the moment, to feel the absence and yet ever-present nature of time.  To not want Hopkins life to end.  To not want the movie (life) to end, but knowing that the movie (life) must end.  It’s brilliant.

    I’ve always liked long movies, and if earned and rich with great scenes and purpose,  they are among the best.  This one has shot to the upper tier of the list for me, and I suspect will stay there, ever-presently.Thanks for your review.  It is an immensely romantic film, and will grow to be a true classic in time, I believe.  For me, it will be.

  4. This movie is one of my all time favorites, and most of my other favorites usually involve Scifi or action of some sort, so Meet Joe Black really spoke to me. I find it to be a timeless classic that has a philosophical core to it. Everytime I sit down and watch it, which is once every few years, I find myself finding something new that rings true about life and its stages. That is how you know the film is not just about entertainment, but a true piece of art.

    The score alone sets the movie apart for for me to the point that I have adopted it as my own personal soundtrack and lullaby for my kids. It has this enticing and enjoyable way of reminding you to enjoy the little things in life; to take a breath and enjoy the moment, for it may never come again. It heightens and cues every scene in the movie perfectly, but the brilliance of the movie is that it does not always even need the score to get you to feel and react.

    As others have said this is Anthony Hopkins at his best. He takes the simplicities of playing a father and business man and plays them masterfully as if you where watching Henry the 5th. I had never been as influenced or drawn in by such a mundane character as Bill Parish. Claire Forlani does a remarkable job as well, being able display everything she is thinking with just her eyes. I was especially impressed by the actress who played Allison and Jeffrey Tambor’s performances. Perfectly cast and executed for their roles. Allison’s story arch mirrored my mothers as she has always loved my grandfather exponentially even though the youngest daughter was the family favorite. And I just have to say, I know there are naysayers to Pitt’s performance, but I think he did a wonderful job considering the uniqueness of the role. The out of body awareness coupled with just the right amount of charm and humor was perfect for the role. The only time it felt awkward for me was when he was the coffee shop guy, and that’s simply because no one is that charming without being full of it.


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