Meet Joe Black

USA 1998

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

A few days before his sixty-fifth birthday, media tycoon William Parrish begins to hear voices but is too busy with his company's merger with a rival to pay attention. His daughter Susan is chatted up by a handsome stranger in a coffee shop. After they go their separate ways, the man is hit by a car and killed.

At dinner, Parrish is visited by Death who has taken the body of the stranger killed outside the coffee shop. Wanting to spend some time on earth, Death allows Parrish a few extra days of life. Parrish introduces the stranger to his family as Joe Black. Susan is astonished that Joe doesn't remember their earlier encounter.

When Parrish scraps his merger plans, his colleagues believe that Joe - who accompanies Parrish wherever he goes - is responsible. Parrish's deputy Drew, who is also Susan's fiancé, stages a boardroom coup and deposes Parrish. Meanwhile, Joe and Susan fall in love.

Joe warns Parrish that his time is almost up. Joe wants to take Susan with him to the other side, although it will mean her death. At his birthday party, Parrish discovers he was double-crossed by Drew, whom he confronts. The other board members promise to safeguard the company. Joe tells Parrish he won't be taking Susan with him after all. The two men leave the party. As Susan is looking for them, Joe appears but can't explain how he got there. Susan realises that this is the original man she met in the coffee shop, whom Joe has allowed to come back to life in his stead.


Pitched in some grey purgatory between screwball comedy and metaphysical romance, Meet Joe Black suffers from a severe identity crisis. Director Martin Brest (inspired to make the film by Mitchell Lieson's 1934 Death Takes a Holiday) starts with the flimsiest of conceits and embellishes an epic three-hour tale around it. Joe Black may be a rarity - a big-budget studio picture that is character-led, not effects-driven - but it's still weighed down by its own solemnity.

The early scenes work best. Anthony Hopkins is well cast as Parrish, the benevolent patriarch troubled by an inner voice intimating his own death. He is a media mogul, but a good-natured and lyrical one with a flair for poetic language. When he dispenses fatherly advice to his daughter Susan, he sounds like Richard Burton declaiming Dylan Thomas poetry. As he suffers his heart attack - a genuinely frightening scene, shot in juddering close-ups - Susan's encounter with a dishevelled stranger in a coffee shop is handled with spontaneity and charm.

But just as the film looks set to develop into a likable romance along the lines of Sliding Doors, cracks begin to appear. By bringing Brad Pitt back as a not-so-grim reaper, the scriptwriters raise all sorts of questions which they never really answer. Why, for instance, does Death need Parrish's assistance to see around the world?

There is some neatly observed comedy when Parrish introduces Death to his family, but it is still hard to work out what Joe is supposed to represent. Pitt plays him in the same way that Nicolas Cage did the angel in City of Angels - that's to say deadpan and charming, almost like a silent film star. On those few occasions when Joe does speak, it's only to repeat a question that has just been asked or to thank his hosts.

When Sting played the Devil in Dennis Potter's Brimstone & Treacle, his beatific good looks made him seem all the more diabolic. Here, nice is as nice does - every so often, Joe might affect a deep voice and threaten to take Parrish away before his time, but we know he is an all-American boy at heart who likes peanut butter and cookies too much to do anything evil. And he's certainly preferable to Susan's other suitor, the oleaginous businessman Drew (Jake Weber), whom Joe effortlessly antagonises.

Parrish himself, though played with gravity and pathos by Hopkins, is a surprisingly one-dimensional hero. There is no tension about his struggle with Death. He's not covetous, or desperate for a few extra days of life to atone for past misdeeds. Rich as Croesus, he is also wise, kind-hearted and despises making money for its own sake. Given that the film's poor performance in the US was partly responsible for Universal boss Casey Silver losing his job, there's more than a hint of irony about his business philosophy.

The longer Joe sticks around, the mushier the film becomes. His hesitancy and eccentric ways enrapture Susan: I love your smell, he tells her, as if invoking the memory of Al Pacino's courtship technique in Brest's earlier hit, Scent of a Woman (1992). In the lovers' scenes together, Pitt gets the best close-ups: he is the object of desire, not Forlani. When Susan falls in love with Joe despite realising that he is not the man she met in the coffee shop, you're left with the impression that anybody in Brad Pitt's body would bowl her over, an impression the bizarre and unsatisfactory ending does nothing to change.


Martin Brest
Ron Osborn
Jeff Reno
Kevin Wade
Bo Goldman
Suggested by the play Death Takes a Holiday written by Alberto Casella, English adaptation by Walter Ferris; and the motion picture screenplay by
Maxwell Anderson
Gladys Lehman
Director of Photography
Emmanuel Lubezki
Joe Hutshing
Michael Tronick
Production Designer
Dante Ferretti
Thomas Newman
©Universal City Studios, Inc
Production Companies
Universal Pictures presents a City Light Films production
Executive Producer
Ronald L. Schwary
David Wally
Associate Producer
Celia Costas
Production Associate
Stephen Whelan
Production Co-ordinator
Monica Levinson
Unit Production Manager
Celia Costas
Location Manager
Declan Baldwin
Location Co-ordinator
Laura Franses
Post-production Supervisors
Debbi Bossi
Jessie Ward
Assistant Directors
Amy Sayres
Christopher J. Surgent
Laura Cercone Fiorino
Rhode Island:
Terry Ham
Script Supervisor
Lisa Katcher
Juliet Taylor
Ellen Lewis
Patricia Kerrigan
ADR Voice:
Barbara Harris
Camera Operators
Craig Dibona
William Coleman
Video Co-ordinator
Sara Corrigan
Special Visual Effects
Industrial Light &s Magic
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Michael Owens
Visual Effects Associate Producer:
Ginger Theisen
Compositing Supervisor:
Jon Alexander
Rotoscope Lead Artist:
Jack Mongovan
Visual Effects Editor:
David Tanaka
Visual Effects Executive Producer:
Chrissie England
Special Effects
Connie Brink
Rhode Island Unit Fireworks
Pyro Spectaculars
Ron Smith

Model Maker
Elizabeth Popiel
Art Director
Robert Guerra
Set Decorator
Leslie Bloom
Storyboard Artist
John F. Davis
Costume Designers
Aude Bronson-Howard
David C. Robinson
Wardrobe Supervisors
Susan J. Wright
Barbara J. Hause
Key Make-up Artists
Richard Dean
Randy Houston Mercer
Key Hairstylists
Lyndell Quiyou
Beth Miller
Stephen G. Bishop
Pacific Title/Mirage
Thomas Pasatieri
Party Music Orchestrations/Conductor
Chris Boardman
Music Editors
Bill Bernstein
Angie Rubin
Temp Track:
Curt Sobel
Music Scoring Mixer
Dennis Sands
"Top Hat, White Tie and Tails", "Let's Face the Music and Dance", "Isn't This a Lovely Day", "Cheek to Cheek" by Irving Berlin; "Our Love Is Here to Stay" by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin; "Lovely to Look At" by Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern, Jimmy McHugh; "Can't Help Loving Dat Man" by Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II; "Where or When" by Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart; "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" by Harry Warren, Al Dubin; "Anything Goes" by Cole Porter; "Happy Birthday to You" by Mildred J. Hill, Patty S. Hill; "What a Wonderful World" by George David Weiss, Bob Thiele; "Over the Rainbow" by E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen/"What a Wonderful World" by George David Weiss, Bob Thiele, performed by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
Dance Consultant
Rhode Island Unit:
Jerry Mitchell
Sound Mixer
Danny Michael
Re-recording Mixers
Chris Jenkins
Ron Bartlett
Mark Smith
Mark Narramore
Sam Kaufman
Supervising Sound Editor
Scott A. Hecker
Dialogue Editors
Gary Lewis
Benjamin Beardwood
Ralph Osborn
Sound Effects Editors
Eric A. Norris
Joe Earle
Linda Keim
Ken Johnson
Carey Stratton
Dean Drabin
Supervising Editor:
Joe Dorn
Allen Hartz
Jeff Rosen
Barbara Issak
David Melhase
Matthew Sawelson
Lauren Palmer
Sarah Monat
Robin Harlan
Don Givens
Jim Stewart
Marilyn Graf Hubbard
John Murray
John Benson
Dan Yale
Lawrence H. Mann
Voice Processing
Geoffrey G. Rubay
Aerial Co-ordinator
Peter J. McKernan
Stunt Co-ordinator
Buddy Joe Hooker
Armouries Managers
Jeremy D. Pratt
Irapaul Xavier Turner
Brad Pitt
Joe Black/young man in coffee shop
Anthony Hopkins
William Parrish
Claire Forlani
Susan Parrish
Jake Weber
Marcia Gay Harden
Jeffrey Tambor
David S. Howard
Eddie Sloane

Lois Kelly-Miller
Jamaican woman
Jahnni St. John
Jamaican woman's daughter
Richard Clarke
Marylouise Burke
Diane Kagan
June Squibb
Gene Canfield
construction foreman
Suzanne Hevner
Steve Coats
Madeline N. Balmaceda
Julie Lund
Drew's secretary
Kay Gaffney
Anthony Kane
Joe H. Lamb
Robert C. Lee
Jim McNickle
Hardy Phippen Jr
Stephen Adly-Guirgis
hospital receptionist
Leo Marks
party waiter
Michelle Youell
Gene Leverone
party guests
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
16,256 feet
180 minutes 37 seconds
Dolby digital/SDDS/Digital DTS sound
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011