by Philip Price
Will Smith is the people's actor. He is a presence that radiates the kind of everyman persona that the actual everyman would like to envision themselves as. It's nearly impossible not to find the presence of Smith in any film he chooses to participate anything other than a force of genuine charisma, but not here. In director David Frankel's “Collateral Beauty,” Smith is relegated to looking as depressed as possible for the limited amount of time he actually appears on screen despite being touted as the lead of this ensemble piece. It's true -- the film’s wackadaisical plot hinges on the actions of Smith's Howard Inlet, but it doesn't ultimately pay that much attention to him. Still, given it is Smith, we care about this human being who is clearly and rightfully dealing with a tragedy on his own terms. Reeling from this great tragedy of losing a child we come to sympathize with Howard mostly thanks to the pain Smith conveys in his eyes that are constantly attempting to fight back both pain and tears. Still, we never become as invested in the character as it seems Frankel or screenwriter Allan Loeb (“The Switch,” “Here Comes the Boom”) imagined we might. Moreover, we are too shocked by what actually plays out in Loeb's screenplay as opposed to what type of movie the trailers sold this one to be. Going into “Collateral Beauty” there was a line of thinking that, being it was the holiday season, Loeb and the studio had intentionally written the story to take place at Christmas and released it around Christmas due to the similarities it seemingly shared with Charles Dickens' classic “A Christmas Carol.” While Smith's Howard is certainly no Scrooge it seemed Loeb had more or less reverse engineered the situation and played things out as if Bob Cratchit were the boss of his own ad agency and whom he moves forward enough that Tiny Tim does in fact pass away only to have the three ghosts that are this time incarnated as Love, Death and Time rather than Past, Present and Future come visit our protagonist revealing the secrets to happiness long thought to be lost. Loeb certainly could have played with a few different ideas and themes coming at the story from this new perspective, but ultimately “Collateral Beauty” was never brave enough to try and update and/or re-engineer that Christmas classic, but would rather be as deceptive about what it actually is the same way many of its characters are.
It is nearly impossible to discuss the film without spoiling what the movie is actually about and so, if you don't care about “Collateral Beauty” or care about being legitimately shocked by a few twists and turns the plot takes, then go ahead and read on, but consider this fair warning. SPOILERS: Contrary to what the trailers would have you believe Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley and Jacob Latimore are not actual incarnations of Death, Love and Time (or are they?). Rather, Howard is the co-founder of a successful ad agency with Whit (Edward Norton) who coincidentally owns 60 percent of the company due to Howard allowing Whit to trade a few shares in exchange for financial assistance when going through his divorce (which is a precursor to a whole other plotline). In the two years since Howard's daughter's death though Howard has never recovered and the relationships he built with clients are beginning to fall apart -- the company inevitably failing as well. Whit, along with fellow company higher-ups in Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) have an offer on the table from a company who is willing to buy them out at $16 a share, but which they are unable to win the vote on due to the fact Howard controls that 60 percent. And so, Whit, Claire and Simon have to come up with a way to prove Howard isn't in the right state of mind to be running a company and thus hatch a plan to do so not by having a counselor come in and report their findings to the court, but rather by hatching a cruel plan they tell themselves might help Howard work through his pain. After hiring the private detective who caught Whit cheating on his wife to spy on Howard, Whit, Claire and Simon discover Howard is writing letters to such abstract concepts as Love, Death and Time. And so, Whit hires three actors in Mirren, Knightley and Latimore to embody these concepts and approach Howard so that they can video it, scrub out the actors and make Howard look crazy enough to overrule. Not enough? On top of that, Loeb weaves in storylines for Simon who grows close with Mirren's Death, Claire who learns a little something from Latimore's Time and Whit who incessantly hits on Knightley's Love only to realize that if he'd put as much effort into showing his daughter such love she may not hate him so much. This is without even mentioning the fact Howard begins attending meetings for parents who have lost children that are conducted by the beautiful Madeleine (Naomie Harris) with which he seems to share an inexplicable bond.
All of this taken into consideration the question still remains as to how such material is executed and if it is done so in an effective manner? Admittedly, “Collateral Beauty” can sometimes be persuasive, even moving. Granted, this is typically when Smith or Mirren is on screen, but that isn't to say it's completely devoid of genuine human emotion or aspiration otherwise. “Collateral Beauty” is a strangely curious piece of work in terms of the fact it is desperate to be some kind of life-affirming Hallmark movie made more credible by the presence of A-list actors and yet it can't help but come off as inherently cynical through the actions of the majority of its characters. It is a film that is undoubtedly designed to make viewers cry as well as simply cramming too much into its narrative and furthermore, trying to be too clever for its own good. Sure, the three co-leads in Norton, Winslet and Peña can have their own lives to worry about-that inherently makes the situation more layered and human, but for them to also be dealing with life-altering situations only tends to make the presence of the film as a whole feel that much more manipulative. In short, it is a mixed bag of both authentic emotions people really do feel brought to the surface through strangely concocted scenarios that are far too convoluted in their execution to ever be truly believable. Life is complicated, no doubt, but the movies are supposed to communicate such small truths about life in simple ways that audiences might understand such complex facets by seeing them broken down into a simple analysis. Rather than attempting to simply analyze what type of incomprehensible grief a parent deals with at the loss of a child and the delicate ways in which others must assist in bringing them back to the world, “Collateral Beauty” wants to bake that cake and a handful of others as well. It's not looking to concentrate its effort on a single, breathtaking piece of cake, but rather on cooking up as many as possible even if they only end up half-baked. That is ultimately the best way to describe what the finished product that is “Collateral Beauty” feels like in that it is a bag of half-baked ideas thrown together in hopes viewers might not notice just how half-baked the individual ideas are due to the fact it is throwing so many at us at once. The fact the film tackles something as truly devastating as the loss of a child makes it only feel all the more cheap and all the more wrong, but hey, that cast is still pretty incredible …
This brings us to the most baffling aspect of this most baffling film -- how in the world did so many seemingly intelligent and talented people decide this was a good idea? Is it purely out of desperation (there's that word again) or the state of the industry that actors of this pedigree are forced to resign their talents to this type of movie if they wish to star in big-budget original dramas or did they genuinely believe this was a solid story? It is hard to decipher the line as each individual cast member is certainly giving it their all, but outside of Mirren and Smith the film is spread so thin by subplots and trying to explain how its main plot somehow makes sense that it leaves little to no room for characterization. I know a critic should be able to review a film without detailing every plot point and that critics should not review the movie they wanted to see, but the one they saw and those points are more than valid. But when the film in question garners as much talent and potential as “Collateral Beauty” has on its hands and its biggest issue comes not from the production design (Christmas in New York City looks as photogenic as ever), the acting (everyone is selling the mess out of their greeting card dialogue) or even the rather traditional score from Theodore Shapiro (Jack Black's character in “The Holiday” would be proud), but from the fact the narrative itself doesn't allow any of these factors to do it any favors, it is difficult not to complain. It's not even that “Collateral Beauty” is a complete mess or straight-up bad movie, but more that its intentions are clearly to make viewers cry rather than to enlighten them to certain aspects of the human experience they may not have considered before. It is this that turns the narrative from one of enlightenment to that of pure machination. Not only is what the characters of Whit, Claire and Simon do in “Collateral Beauty” morally wrong, but it is wrong in the sense that it kind of deserves condemnation. Unfortunately, it is the movie these characters exist within that will be condemned instead and despite having a few shining moments that condemnation is not wholly unearned. If we might have simply had a character study concerning Smith's Howard and his relationship with Harris' Madeleine, “Collateral Beauty” might have delivered something more sincere. But with all the plot that tends to get in the way, this is a film that can't let the tears flow where they may, but that must force them from your eyeballs with a thousand OneRepublic choruses.