MOVIE REVIEW: Collateral Beauty



As entertainment, movies are an ideally suited artistic medium to motivate or stimulate emotional responses.  The smartly composed narratives among them can pull that off naturally.  Others force it.  When such happens, manipulation replaces motivation.  For an example, look no further than “Collateral Beauty” starring Will Smith and directed by David Frankel.  It is one of the most egregious miscalculations of filmmaking and marketing in recent memory.

Will Smith’s Howard Inlet was a gregarious and successful New York City ad executive before he lost his only child, a daughter, to a rare form of brain cancer two years ago.  Now, Howard is a shell of his former self and his sapped energy has taken its toll on the company.  His agency is being targeted for takeover, an event that will secure golden parachutes for Howard’s co-founders and friends, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet), and Simon Scott (Michael Pena).  

The reclusive and distant Howard refuses to relinquish his majority control allowing the purchase to go smoothly and profitably.  Whit seeks to find evidence of incompetency and hires a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to follow Howard.  The PI divulges Howard’s routine of bike rides, park trips, and, most curiously, frequently handwritten letters he mails unaddressed to the abstractions of Love, Time, and Death.  Inspired by a casting call actress named Aimee (Keira Knightley), Whit concocts a scheme to hire her and two of her theater colleagues, the street performer Raffi (Jacob Lattimore) and the veteran thespian Brigette (Helen Mirren), to approach Howard playing the roles of Love, Time, and Death in hopes of provoking his madness to a breaking point.

Yes, you just read that right.  Three of a grieving father’s closest friend and colleagues elect to set him up for failure to securely line their First World Problem pockets.  Is that a little different from the inspiring trailer you saw featuring this loaded cast?

It sure is.  It’s actors playing Love, Time, and Death.  That’s a big step down from communing with Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Welcome to manipulation birthed from manipulation from the director of “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley and Me,” and “The Big Year.”

It’s a shame too because Will Smith showed up and gives 110%, locking onto a powerful and palpable performance of sorrow and grief.  Limited by the latest screenplay debacle from Allan Loeb (“The Dilemma,” “Just Go For It”), Smith allows the salt-and-pepper of his 48 years replace his usual boundless charm.  He makes the most of his internalized character arc and engages in touching scenes with a support group leader played by “Moonlight” Oscar contender Naomie Harris.

“Collateral Beauty” attempts to shake its own finger towards Whit, Claire, and Simon by matching them with hefty personal problems of their own surrounding Love, Time, and Death.  With the dumping continuing on Howard, their peripheral tangents to learn lessons and change their own lives reek of hollow pointlessness by comparison.  By the end, swerves are attempted to course-correct the manipulation and play with the notion and interpretation of those three abstractions being the real deal.  

The attempts are too little and too late, save for one A+ reveal of where Howard’s unseen wife and the mother of his child fits into the lonely picture.  Other than that extended moment, there is not a single genuine reaction or compelling argument spawned by the film. Everything is forced.  That amounts to 17 Academy Award nominations and 2 Oscar wins worth of wasted acting talent between Smith, Norton, Winslet, Knightley, and Mirren.  All of them are better than this.

LESSON #1: THE HUMAN CONDITION’S APPROACH TO THE ABSTRACTS OF LOVE, TIME, AND DEATH-- Howard pulls primal triggers for his advertising work when he says everyone longs for love, wishes for more time, and fears death.  As fumbling and plain as they sound, even if those three statements come from the “Stating the Obvious” lecture on the first day of Psychology 101, there is truth to the assignments.

LESSON #2: INTERVENTION IS MEANT FOR THE PATIENT NOT THE INTERVENTIONIST-- If you’re trying to create an intervention for a wayward friend in need solely to make yourself feel or come off better, you’re doing it wrong.

LESSON #3: NO, I WILL NOT TRY TO CREATE A MEANING FOR THE TITULAR TERM "COLLATERAL BEAUTY"-- Just stop, exhale, and smell the roses, and you'll be fine.  Don't give it a trendy term.