Director: David Frankel
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 12/16/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 15, 2016
Collateral Beauty earns its title. The phrase is evocative of something but meaningless no matter what way one interprets it. Do not attempt to dissect it, because it was likely decided by means of a dartboard decorated with words and a nearby thesaurus.
That screenwriter Allan Loeb actually has a character explain the concept of "collateral beauty" is ultimately worthless, because the dialogue is not actually an explanation. It's the sentiment of a greeting card presented with a combination of two words that are, again, evocative of something but ultimately meaningless.
Basically, the sentiment amounts to this: If you're feeling sad, look for the stuff around you that could make you happy. The movie's story, by the way, is about a man who is so depressed following the death of his 6-year-old daughter that he has spent two years in a nearly catatonic state. He speaks to no one, except with nods and shakes of his head, and doesn't even go through the motions of his everyday life. He owns an advertising firm, but he leaves the office early after spending his time assembling elaborate domino structures. Obviously, the business is in financial trouble, which leads to his friends/co-workers devising a scheme to force him to save the company by selling it.
Let's get to that scheme later, because there's a lot to say about it. Also, this is the sort of movie that constantly creates new ways of infuriating, so there's a chance of missing some of the lesser ways for the most obvious one, which is that Howard's (Will Smith, whose performance is exponentially better than everything around it, including his character) friends/co-workers essentially decide to psychologically abuse their so-called friend.
Yes, that detail is vital to understanding the sort of monumental failures of which the movie is capable, but it's also important to keep some focus on the point that all of these decisions are used to make. It's a movie about depression, grieving, and trauma that believes such things are simply stuff that one needs to get over. The characters here don't heal or go through any sort of process. They simply acknowledge something and then, as if by magic, are cured of their troubles.
Howard's "friends" are Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña). Their plan is to hire three actors—Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley), and Raffi (Jacob Latimore)—to play three abstract concepts—Death, Love, and Time, respectively—to which Howard has been writing letters. They discover the letters by hiring a private investigator (played by Ann Dowd) to follow Howard to find some evidence that he is mentally impaired in some way, so that Whit, Howard's business partner, can sell the company to an interested buyer.
In other words, Whit, Claire, and Simon have decided that they will convince this man that he has gone insane. The concept of "gaslighting," the accurate term for what they're doing, is brought up by Loeb's screenplay, almost as a sort of insurance policy against being dubbed ignorant of what his characters are doing. Then, it is immediately and summarily dismissed, because the screenwriter willfully has decided that psychological abuse is an acceptable narrative device to attempt making an audience feel good about people overcoming debilitating emotional distress. Loeb also offers himself an easy out with one, completely unsurprising twist at the very end of the movie (It follows a less obvious but terribly wrong-headed and unbelievable one, even in a world where the second revelation is possible).
For some more feel-good-about-awful-things sentimentality, the movie gives Howard's three tormentors—sorry, friends—their own problems. The divorced Whit is having difficulty bonding with his daughter (Kylie Rogers), so he gets to have conversations with Amy—who, again, is pretending to be Love—about how important love is. Claire is deciding whether or not to have a baby, so Raffi, who's acting the part of Time, gets to passive-aggressively scold her about her biological clock. Since there's only one actor/concept-friend combination remaining, two things should be clear at this point: 1.) Simon is dying (Nobody actually cares about this fact, only that he feels "OK" with it by the end), and 2.) that final "twist" really isn't much of one.
From its title to its cloying revelations (to the fact that nobody in this movie can cross a street correctly—yet no one, sadly, gets hit by a car), this is junk. It's not just any junk, either. Collateral Beauty is junk that thinks it's meaningful about grief and believes it is doing good. No, it's emotionally fraudulent, narratively underhanded junk.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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