Collateral Beauty (2016) – Movie Review
*WARNING* This review of ‘Collateral Beauty’ will contain full-spoilers. This is mainly because the movie being sold in the trailers is not the movie that is actually in theatres. As a result an in-depth, spoiler-free discussion simply isn’t possible.
Directed by: David Frankel
Written by: Allan Loeb
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore & Keira Knightley
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Release Date: December 26th 2016
The term “Oscar-Bait” tends to get thrown around a lot, but the concept has only been a relatively recent thing. After huge smash-hit films like ‘Star Wars‘, ‘Jaws‘ and other top-grossing films were nominated for “Best Picture” the industry started to shift to use the Oscars as a marketing-tool to give a spotlight to indie films, especially in the “Best Actor” categories. While this was a long and gradual shift (pundits like to attribute this change to 1978’s ‘The Deer Hunter‘) it is now considered the best way to get awards-recognition. Anyway, now Oscar-bait is a way to not just appeal to certain audience members but it can be used to get actors on board of projects with the promise of a strong Oscar-push in exchange for a reduced wage.
And here we find ‘Collateral Beauty‘ a movie whose trailer makes you wonder who thought this film was a good idea being saddled with a $36M budget and huge stars like Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren and more. If you think that’s impressive, the film was originally going to star Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Jason Segal, Rachel McAdams and Johnny Depp. And let’s not forget Will Smith who probably joined this film in order to get another chance at Oscar-glory after ‘Concussion‘ didn’t go so well for him. This also comes from director David Frankel who’s last film ‘One Chance‘ was Oscar-bait wrapped up as a 100-minute “Britain’s Got Talent” advert. Is there more to ‘Collateral Beauty‘ than a hugely pretentious title or is there a reason Warner Bros. decided to hide this star-studded movie by releasing it on the same weekend as ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘ in the U.S.?
Howard Inlet (Smith) is a successful marketing executive in New York, but he’s currently reeling after the death of his young daughter and is unable to do his job. With Howard’s behaviour driving away clients and pushing his company on the verge of bankruptcy, estranged friends and co-workers Whit (Norton), Claire (Winslet) and Simon (Peña) concoct a plan. They discover that Howard has been sending therapeutic letters to “Love”, “Death” and Time” so they hire three actors, Amy (Knightley), Brigitte (Mirren) and Raffi (Latimore) to pretend to be these three abstract concepts so they can talk to Howard in public, have a private investigator film the encounters and then digitally remove the actors from the footage to make it look like Howard is going mad and have him removed from the company.
No, I am not kidding. That is the ACTUAL plot of ‘Collateral Beauty‘. There’s a very good reason the trailers haven’t hinted towards the plot-point that “Love”, “Death” and “Time” are being played by hired actors so that they can gaslight someone who’s daughter has just died because…well, because that’s absolutely abhorrent.
With a movie like ‘Collateral Beauty‘ it’s hard to know just where to even begin when trying to take it down because it’s almost amazing that this movie actually exists in this current state. You can understand the project getting green-lit with a premise revolving around a grieving father having conversations with abstract concepts. It’s a tough sell, but you can see it paying off well in skilled hands (and not the hands of, say, the director of ‘One Chance‘). But then once actors started reading the script and realised that this was actually an elaborate, mean-spirited ploy to ruin someone’s life, how did someone not intervene here? How did this movie actually get in front of cameras with this premise?
The worst part is; the movie acknowledges how scummy Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña’s characters are acting. Early on they hire a private detective to follow Will Smith around and she (and I’m not making this up) sees him posting letters into a nearby mailbox and proceeds to break into the mailbox and openly admit that she committed a federal crime in order to attain the letters.
When one of the “protagonists” has to say in your script that they committed a federal crime, that’s probably your cue to do a page-one rewrite.
When it comes to convincing the three actors to portray the abstract concepts the only person who seems to have much of an objection is Keira Knightley’s character who says how messed up and depraved the scenario is, with Helen Mirren’s thespian embracing the difficulty of the role of death, portrayed as “elderly white woman” and Jacob Latimore’s character not really having a strong opinion on the matter. But they all go through with it because Norton and co. promise to fund their independent theatre production.
So with the stage being set, the central conceit of the movie which revolves around Will Smith having meaningful conversations with these concepts feels absolutely worthless because Smith isn’t actually talking to these people because they’re just actors improvising with the roles they’ve been given…or are they? More on that in a bit. The only actual growing Will Smith’s character tends to experience is during conversations with Naomie Harris who plays a woman who also lost a daughter and the two start to bond over their shared experiences. It’s actually a nicely done sub-plot, even if it’s simply dripping in the overly-pretentious dialogue that permeates the entire film. At one point Edward Norton says that when he held his daughter for the first time that he didn’t just “feel love” but he had “become love”. Gag me.
Due to Will Smith not learning much through his encounters with “Love”, “Death” and “Time” most of the growing has to come from his work-colleagues who talk to the three actors between acting-scenarios and it turns out they have their own ironic personal issues that correspond with the abstracts. Michael Peña spends time with Helen Mirren’s “Death” but it turns out he hasn’t got long to live and has yet to tell his family, Edward Norton tries to hit on Keira Knightley’s “Love” but he’s also a work-aholic absentee father who needs to prove that he loves his daughter and Kate Winslet has intense conversations with Jacob Latimore’s “Time” because she wants to have a child through sperm donation but she’s biologically running out of time. It’s meant to be profound and we’re meant to sympathise with the trio, but it’s kinda hard when you know that they’re gaslighting their supposed best friend in some elaborate plan to get him fired instead of doing almost anything else to save their company.
But it feels like these three characters don’t have much of a moral to learn because once their mission is completed and they get Will Smith on camera freaking out and digitally remove the actors and present the footage to the company’s board of directors, Smith catches onto what his “friends” have done (he’s almost comically specific in figuring out their exact plan) and he immediately forgives them. Not only that ,but thanks them for doing what they did and without a fight signs over the company, demonstrating that they probably could have resolved this entire thing if they just talked to him.
But the movie ain’t done yet. Remember Will Smith’s relationship with the similarly grieving Naomie Harris? Well, these two complete strangers are then revealed to have actually been husband and wife prior to the events of the film and the reason they introduced themselves to one another and made zero mention of this until the very end of the movie is because when they divorced she took his wish of wishing to be strangers very literally just so the audience can be the subject to a incredibly forced and contrived twist. It also removes almost anything poignant about the two’s relationship because it was all in service of shallow emotional manipulation, but those three words best describe ‘Collateral Beauty‘.
But, it’s hard to deny that the cast are doing great work here. Helen Mirren is fun, Keira Knightley is saddled with terrible dialogue but at least she’s trying and Jacob Latimore who is a relative unknown compared to the rest of the acting heavy-hitters actually does a really good job here. While this film may actually do some short-term collateral damage (GEDDIT!?) to the careers of almost everyone involved, it’s easy to imagine Latimore’s career carrying on unscathed. Edward Norton is absolutely hamming it up, Michael Peña and Kate Winslet are pretty boring and as for Will Smith, in terms of emotional heft this could be one of the best performances of his career. But the character he’s saddled with isn’t given much range beyond being grieving and sombre. But his performance is so strong that it just further exacerbates the terrible deeds that his friends are committing and further hits home just how skewed this film’s morals are.
There are scenes where Will Smith rides a bicycle into oncoming traffic on an almost nightly basis in order to kill himself. THIS is the guy who his best friends are trying to gaslight in order to get him fired after the death of his daughter from cancer and the divorce of his wife as a result of that death. Let that overwhelming fact sink in for a minute.
No, seriously. Read that last paragraph again. And again. And again. Let that fact deeply sink into the pit of your stomach.
And then it turns out that the three actors weren’t actors but ACTUALLY WERE “Death”, “Time” and “Love” and what the movie is trying to get across with that is….I couldn’t tell you even if you put a gun to my head, apart from “Another twist! That makes us smart!”.
The film is shot relatively well though. New York at Christmas Time is inherently romantic and there’s a lot of location-work going on and many different environments explored, from expensive hotel lobbies to the modest home where grieving parents come to talk about their emotions. But there’s a helluva lot of pretentious imagery in the movie, including but not limited to, a fetish for dominoes which mainly exist to make the trailer more interesting. There’s also a lot of artsy close-ups shots of actors stepping into focus and you can tell that they mainly exist as trailer-fodder in which to put the actor’s names on top of. Theodore Shapiro’s score does the job well, but it feels like he brought whimsical, inspirational music to a sadist’s screenplay.
‘Collateral Beauty‘ is such a uniquely terrible film that it’s kinda hard to find the appropriate words to describe it or even know where to begin. All I can say for certain is that ‘Collateral Beauty‘ is a depraved and shamelessly pretentious piece of garbage romanticising a plot that (once again) revolves around gaslighting a work-colleague who is grieving over the death of his daughter to cancer and the divorce of his wife as a result of that deatu in order to get him fired from his job. Will Smith, Helen Mirren and Jacob Latimore may bring their A-game but this is bottom-of-the-barrel Z-grade entertainment that tries to relentlessly tug at your heartstrings but instead strikes all of the wrong nerves; specifically, the nerves of those with a functioning moral compass.
I give ‘Collateral Beauty‘ half a star out of 5.
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Posted: 21st Feb 17