I’ll say this for David Frankel’s Collateral Beauty: it always held my interest. The movie is a 97-minute slow motion car crash where every single choice is ill-conceived, cheaply played, painfully obvious, and totally disingenuous. The film isn’t just mawkish and maudlin, although it’s certainly played for maximum schmaltz. No, Collateral Beauty is also deeply offensive with regards to how people deal with grief and depression. There isn’t a single sympathetic character in the entire film, and people who should be friends resort to acts of cruel deception. Instead of dealing with emotions and relationship in an honest manner, Collateral Beauty offers nothing but platitudes and smug self-satisfaction.
[Note: I’m going to go into spoilers on this movie, so if you’re hell bent on seeing Collateral Beauty, stop reading now; Godspeed, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.]
The film opens at an advertising agency where Howard (Will Smith) is giving an “inspirational” speech to his staff where he highlights the importance of “The Three Abstractions”: Death, Love, and Time. Never mind that such concepts would get laughed out of a New Age Philosophy 101 course let alone cause everyone in the room to make the wanking motion: Howard clearly thinks he’s being profound and so does the film as everyone looks at him with total awe.
Cut forward three years later and Howard’s daughter is dead, and he’s resorted to spending all of his time building domino structures in his office BECAUSE SYMBOLISM. His co-workers and supposed friends Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) are worried about Howard, but they’re more worried about their jobs. Howard was the big draw at the company, but ever since lapsing into a two-year depression due to his daughter’s death, Howard just isn’t his old self anymore (funny how the death of a child can change a person’s personality). Howard won’t quit and he owns the majority of shares in the company, so his friends hatch a scheme to get him declared mentally incompetent.
That’s right: the people who are his “friends” decide to betray Howard so they can steal the company from him. But how will they pull off such an audacious scheme? In one of the sickest, most disturbing acts of inspiration every depicted on film, Whit gets the idea from how he interacts with his Alzheimer’s-ridden mother. He explains to Claire and Simon that ever since he decided to simply play into his mother’s reality, everyone has been a lot happier. You see, all mental illness is the same, and so someone in the throes of grief is really no different than someone who has Alzheimer’s.
When they learn from a private investigator (Ann Dowd) that Howard has been writing letters to Death, Love, and Time, the gang sees their opening. Whit bumps into Amy (Keira Knightley) at a casting call and then follows her back to a theater space where he meets her fellow actors Brigitte (Helen Mirren) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore). The actors decide to play Death, Love, and Time and confront Howard using information in the letters he sent them (they have the letters because the P.I. broke into a mailbox; seriously, this movie has no shortage of garbage human beings). Whit, Claire, and Simon delude themselves into thinking it might be cathartic for Howard, but their larger plan is to get him to think he’s crazy, so I’m not quite sure how that helps him.
When he’s not busy being deceived by people who supposedly care about him, Howard lurks outside a support group for parents who have lost their children. There he meets Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who lost her daughter Olivia to cancer. Slowly unraveling as his friends fuck with his sense of sanity, Howard tries to forge a connection with Madeleine while coming to grips with the loss of his daughter.
It gets so much worse.
It’s hard to know where to begin with a film as bad as Collateral Beauty, but let’s start with its most egregious sin: the total disrespect for people who are dealing with grief. For starters, for all of the film’s talk about “The Three Abstractions”, the biggest abstraction is Howard’s daughter. All we know about her is that he liked to spin her around and that she’s dead. While I don’t expect a rich biography for a six-year-old, details matter and Collateral Beauty has none. What was her favorite TV show? What did she want to be when she grew up? What was her favorite food? Collateral Beauty offers nothing to demonstrate that Howard’s daughter was a real person, and so she exists in the abstract as “Dead Kid Who Makes Her Dad Sad.”
But even if you want to invest on the superficial level that we should feel sadness about a relationship that is completely devoid of any details, the way the film approaches grief is sick and twisted. Rather than take the mature approach and show that some sadness is insurmountable no matter how hard we try, Collateral Beauty offers the biggest load of horseshit by pretending that if we simply confront abstract ideals and acknowledge our pain, then healing isn’t that far away. It’s like screenwriter Allan Loeb took the worst elements from New Age thinking and Objectivism and combined them into the worst philosophy ever.
The film is made even more painful by how obvious it’s willing to be. It’s not enough for Howard to “confront” the abstractions. The actors must also hang out with Whit, Claire, and Simon one-on-one so that their concept is better illustrated. Whit’s estranged from his daughter, so he spends time with Amy learning about Love. Claire’s biological clock is ticking so she gets some life lessons from Raffi who is playing Time. And the second Simon coughs you know he’s dying because he’s spending his time with Death’s actor, Brigette.
What’s bizarre is that nothing is learned or illustrated by any of these interactions. You will not walk out of Collateral Beauty thinking any differently about love, death, or time. It’s clear that Loeb thought he was being incredibly clever by having these abstractions interact with people who have to learn a valuable lesson, but every lesson has the depth of a greeting card. Love your family? Good to know. Make the most of your time with others? On it. Be honest with the people in your life? Absolutely (unless you want to steal their company in order to keep your job).
There’s also the issue of why even bother going through such a convoluted set-up in the first place. While nothing could improve the film’s flippant attitude towards grief, at least it could get going much faster by just embracing magical realism and cutting out the parts where Whit, Claire, and Simon hire actors. Imagine if in It’s a Wonderful Life Clarence hadn’t been an angel but an actor hired by Uncle Billy and then the whole town gathered to redecorate in an effort to convince George Bailey that he shouldn’t kill himself. That would be really dumb, but that’s the level Collateral Beauty is operating at—doing the most complicated thing to get the worst possible result.
And it doesn’t even have the courage to follow through on its bullshit premise! So at the end of the film, Howard and Madeleine (who it turns out is Howard’s ex-wife in a twist so laughable and unnecessary I gasped at the people around me who were gasping) are walking through the park, and Howard turns around and sees the three actors (he never learns that they’re actors because his friends never come clean with him) standing on a bridge. Madeleine turns to look but doesn’t see anyone there. So, Collateral Beauty limply suggests the actors weren’t actors at all but truly the three abstractions who have come to help Howard and his co-workers.
Which makes no goddamn sense. The movie goes out of its way to establish that Amy, Brigette, and Raffi are actors. Whit meets Amy at a casting call for a commercial. They have the actors sign non-disclosure agreements. They pay the actors money to play the parts. The actors work in a rented theater space. The film spends the majority of its runtime stressing that these three people are actors, and then at the very end it turns around and asks, “Or were they?” Fuck you.
So why would talented Hollywood actors sign on for such a total abomination? I can only assume because the script plays to their vanity. In Collateral Beauty, actors are the heroes and at the ends, they could even be gods. The film argues that acting isn’t just artistic expression; it’s a calling that’s on par with a licensed psychiatric professional. When you’re acting, you’re not lying to someone; you’re transforming their life for the better!
Everyone involved in this movie should embarrassed, but perhaps none more so than Smith. His performance here consists of talking slowly and in a deeper register to let you know he’s sad. What’s frustrating is that Smith is one of the most charismatic actors of his generation, and he’s wasted his talent on terrible films that flatter his ego. Rather than take challenging roles and work with top-tier directors, Smith seems content to coast on overwrought dramas like Collateral Beauty, Seven Pounds, and The Pursuit of Happyness or playing charming smart-asses like with Suicide Squad and Focus. I’d like to say Collateral Beauty is Smith hitting rock bottom, but then I remembered he was in a movie where his character committed suicide using a jellyfish.
For a film that thinks it’s being uplifting and inspiring, Collateral Beauty is arguably the most offensive and insipid major Hollywood film this year. To call it “misguided” would be a compliment. It’s a movie that’s not only completely divorced from real emotions and relationships, but sees that kind of divorce as something worth celebrating. The only redeeming thing about Collateral Beauty is that you won’t be able to look away at the non-stop horror it continues to reveal.