Life insurance myths and realities from "Along Came Polly"

Ben Stiller played a risk-averse life insurance analyst in this iconic early 2000s rom-com. But is the movie realistic about life insurance?

Rebecca Shoenthal author photo


Rebecca Shoenthal

Rebecca Shoenthal

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Rebecca Shoenthal is a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert and a former editor at Policygenius. Her insights about life insurance and finance have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Fox Business, The Balance, HerMoney, SBLI, and John Hancock.

Updated December 2, 2021 | 7 min read

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When you apply for life insurance, your application goes through an underwriting process in which the insurance company evaluates your risk of dying while the policy is in force. An underwriter looks at several criteria when assessing insurance risk: your medical records, family history, hobbies, and age to determine how much you’ll pay in premiums (or if you’re insurable at all).

In Along Came Polly, Jennifer Aniston and Ben Stiller star in a 2004 classic rom-com about (of all things) life insurance. Senior Risk Assessment Analyst Reuben Feffer (Stiller) works at Indursky & Sons, a fictional insurance agency. Reuben assesses insurance risk for a living and his work carries over to his personal life where he’s overly cautious.

After his wife cheats on him with a scuba diving instructor, on their honeymoon in St. Barts, Reuben runs into former middle school classmate Polly Prince. Polly is the opposite of his predictable, real estate agent wife. She is an adventurous free spirit who likes spicy foods, salsa dancing, and traveling.

But we’re insurance people. So naturally, we wanted to go beyond the cheesy dating scenes, bad humor, and predictable plot to find out: is the life insurance information in Along Came Polly accurate? We spoke with Policygenius agent, Brian Ford to get to the bottom of this.

4 inaccuracies about life insurance from Along Came Polly:

Throughout the movie, while Reuben and Polly fall madly in love, another side plot takes place. Reuben’s boss tasks him with analyzing the insurance risk of hot-shot Australian CEO Leland Van Lew. As the CEO of a publicly-traded company Leland is, rightfully, looking for insurance. But he’s a risk-taker, so it’s up to Reuben to determine his evidence of insurability and present that to the insurer.

1. Insurance companies care more about your risky hobbies than anything else

As we mentioned earlier, insurers weigh a variety of factors when reviewing your life insurance application. The four main categories they look at are your age, your health, your gender, and your hobbies. It’s unlikely that any single factor will make or break your insurability, so it’s unrealistic that Leland’s admiration for base jumping, heli-skiing, and shark wrestling would mean automatic application denial.

Expert take:

Very frequently we'll have clients that think because they went skydiving once or scuba diving in shallow depths once every couple of years when they vacation to Cabo, their policy is going to be more expensive. That’s not typically the case.

Of course, certain hobbies are riskier than others in the eyes of insurance companies. They might increase your rates or you could be more limited in the companies that will insure you, but the movie definitely overhyped this factor. Plus, the movie even mentioned Leland’s superb blood pressure, weight, and overall health. A favorable health classification like this would be all the more reason to insure him (and set an affordable monthly premium rate).

Expert take:

If I had Leland as a client, the best-case scenario for someone as risky as him is an approved policy with a ‘flat extra’ (an additional premium fee between $2 and $5 per $1,000 of coverage) or a policy with a hazardous activities exclusion rider.

The bottom line: if you enjoy the occasional risky activity, it’s unlikely to affect your rates in a significant way.

2. Insurers sit around in a conference room to evaluate risk

That scene where Reuben’s boss and coworkers pitch Leland’s evidence of insurability to a room of insurance company reps? Yeah, that doesn’t happen. Applying for life insurance today doesn’t involve big pitch meetings in conference rooms.

Expert take:

An agent can add notes to the underwriters to help explain any gray areas in your application, but for the most part the application is black and white.

In most cases, even for high-net-worth CEOs, you can apply online or over the phone either directly through a company of your choice, or with the help of a licensed independent broker who can help you compare different options.

3. Underwriters spend personal time with their clients before making a decision

In an effort to prove he’s a low insurance risk, Leland invites Reuben and Polly on his sailboat to spend time together.

Expert take:

Yeah, that definitely doesn’t happen, but I wouldn't say no if a big-shot CEO invited me on his boat.

In most cases, insurance underwriters don’t even interact with potential customers IRL.

In-person medical exams, however, are the norm during the life insurance underwriting process. Although certain insurers will offer no-medical-exam life insurance, most of the time you’ll need to make a visit to a healthcare examiner or set up an in-home appointment.

4. Insurers “analyze the man and not just the numbers”

Sandy’s final speech endorsing Leland to the insurance company is convincing, moving even. But we hate to break it to you: insurance companies don’t care if you volunteer, rescue puppies, or recycle.

Expert take:

I'll have clients who say ‘I'm vegan,’ or ‘I run 5 miles a day.’ I mean, that's great, but that's not going to make your policy cheaper.

Insurance is all about risk and assessing insurance risk is all about “the numbers.” So while they do consider the four factors we mentioned earlier (age, hobbies, gender and health), having a vegan diet or being a runner is not a guarantee that you will get the most competitive rates.

However, if your application is declined by one insurance company, that’s not to say you won’t be able to find coverage from another. Every company weighs the risk factors differently. So if you have diabetes, for example, certain insurers won’t increase your rates dramatically due to your condition.

What you should take away about insurance from Along Came Polly:

1. Business owners and certain employees need a specific type of life insurance called key person insurance

Key person insurance provides a death benefit if an employee crucial to a business’ operations passes away. This type of insurance covers the costs of replacing that employee or any business lost as a result of their death.

Someone must be key to the functioning of a business to be eligible for key person insurance. This includes owners, start-up founders and CEOs (like Leland.) If you already have personal life insurance, great! But that’s not enough to cover your “business cost” if you die.

"Buy-sell policies are another great option for joint business partners who don't want their partner's surviving spouse having control of the business," adds Ford. "A buy-sell policy enables your business partner to use the death benefit to buy out the surviving spouse."

To avoid a situation where your loved ones and business partner have to split a death benefit, or where your business partner is left with hefty bills and loan payments if you’re gone, life insurance is a must.

2. Altering your lifestyle can help you get insurance coverage (or more affordable rates)

When Reuben tells Leland he needs to make drastic changes to his lifestyle in order to get insurance, this isn’t so far-fetched. Making changes – losing weight, lowering blood pressure, or quitting smoking – can have a positive impact on your health classification and secure lower premium rates.

However, it’s important to know that the payoffs don’t happen overnight. Avoiding cigarettes for a few weeks before your medical exam won’t be as impressive to the underwriters as, say, being smoke-free for the past five years. Insurance companies are looking for evidence of long-term health changes.

“Most companies even allow you to apply for a rating reconsideration on your policy anniversary,” notes Ford. “So you can get the policy and secure coverage now, and then qualify for lower rates later if you quit smoking or lose weight."

Oh, and if you thought you could just fake your way through the verbal exam questions, think again. Lying on your insurance application about anything – including health-related topics – is insurance fraud. If you get caught, the insurance company can increase your rates or deny your beneficiaries the death benefit altogether.

3. Insurance companies will re-evaluate your application

We already mentioned how a declined application from one insurance company doesn’t mean you won’t find coverage elsewhere. But it’s also worth noting that if you get declined coverage (like Leland does…twice) most insurance companies will offer a postponement and re-evaluate your application in the future.

“At Policygenius, we actually use a universal application for any company we work with,” says Ford. “So we can reuse the same medical exam if you need to reapply for insurance with a different company in the future.”

Unlike in the movie, this process doesn’t happen overnight. Depending on the reason for postponement, it could be months or even years (in extreme cases) before the insurer will re-evaluate. If, for example, you recently gave birth and were diagnosed with gestational diabetes, most insurance companies will postpone your application until several months postpartum to allow your body to return to its pre-pregnancy state.

4. Don’t eat out of the bowl of mixed nuts at a bar

So, we couldn’t actually find any “solid” research to back this up. But Reuben’s advice to avoid mixed nuts (or any communal food) makes sense. This is especially true during the coronavirus pandemic. Wash your hands and buy a pack of mixed nuts from the supermarket instead.

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In the end, Leland Van Lew secured a 20-year, $50 million policy that includes life, health and auto insurance coverage (a bundle like this isn’t common) and Reuben and Polly sailed off into the sunset. While the relationship stuff might not be our area of expertise, if you’re looking for a realistic life insurance quote, we can help answer all your questions and find the right plan for your needs.