Hollywood has no problem forcing emotional pornography upon drama-hungry audiences, but even compared to the most shallow tearjerkers, Collateral Beauty is f*#king savage. Like, rips-your-heart-out-and-eats-it-in-front-of-you savage. Writer Allan Loeb wants to make you cry, but only through the most superficial, disconnected emotional means possible. Think “Chicken Soup For No One’s Soul,” with a recipe that tosses every gut-wrenching soap opera subplot into a lukewarm, neglected stew. You might bawl, but you’ll also feel abused by scripted sledgehammers that only act as a sullen onslaught of morose sadness undeserving of your investment.
Plus, it’s just bad, sloppy filmmaking. Gross misappropriations of emotional discovery aside.
Will Smith stars as a man named Howard, who’s stuck grieving over the death of his 6-year old daughter. It’s been multiple years, but the divorced husk of a man shows no signs of escaping his funk. While business partner/best friend Whit (Edward Norton) tries to keep their advertising firm profitable, Howard builds domino chains and knocks them down – yet he won’t sign a buy-out deal that’d make many people very wealthy. This is when Whit, along with co-workers Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña), decides to hire actors (Helen Mirren/Keira Knightley/Jacob Latimore) who will play the likes of Death, Love and Time (who Howard has been writing letters to). They hope he’ll find answers and peace, but their ultimate goal is to override his voting power by proving him insane. Oh the lessons they’re all about to learn.
The greatest asset here is Smith’s performance, and his representation of soul-crushing grief. Howard has lost a beautiful daughter, and essentially imprisons himself in his own despair (empty room, no Wi-Fi, no purpose at work). Never do we question the pain weighing down a once vivacious marketing guru, it’s just that Loeb has no means to delve deeper than the surface-value assertion that “grief is hard.” Movies like Manchester By The Sea and The Final Girls spark conversation and value perspective, but Collateral Beauty murders your pet hamster, points at your tears and says “That’s grief!” Sad things are sad, and that’s everything you need to know.
Now, I’m going to dig into some plot details here because I’m still amazed at the nonsensical depths of this masturbatory melancholia. A spoiler alert is in effect for the rest of the review except for the last paragraph, because I need to hash this bullshit out myself. Read on at your own will!
Still with me? Right. Here we go.
First up, f*#k Whit, Simon and Claire. These are three despicable human beings who we don’t give a shit about, only to learn that – gasp – they’re about to be enlightened by the actor they pair up with. Simon teams up with Death because we learn he’s actually dying from a rare disease, and wants Howard gone to secure wealth for his family. Claire chills with Time because she’s too busy for a family, but is debating the notion of artificial insemination. And Whit? He’s paired with love – who he hits on mercilessly/aggressively – because his daughter tells him she’s never visiting again, instead opting to sail around Europe with her mom’s rich new boy-toy. Such potent life-dramas for people who we hate off the bat, and are never given a reason for a change of heart. But no, go ahead and announce Simon’s rare disease while he’s shopping for groceries, being hounded by a theatre actor he met one time prior. Cue the water-works and middle fingers simultaneously.
Then you’ve got Howard’s three wise men and women, who are first billed as angels in every single marketing trailer, then posed as actors in the film, only to reveal they might be angels/demons/ghosts/demigods/whatever after all? You know, because the angels are ACTUALLY there to help Whit, Simon and Claire, NOT Howard. This has to be true, because during the film’s climax (a board meeting where doctored evidence removes Howard’s voting power), Howard says he knows the deep, dark secrets his friends have been hiding from everyone. How? Because, emotions. Nothing to do with these bottom-feeding deplorables confessing personal issues to random strangers they hired to frame their company manager/close personal friend. Howard just turns the tides on a whim, without any previous scenes alluding to the mute sadness monster picking up on facts.
“Now Matt, how can you hate a movie where Dame Helen Mirren plays Death herself?!” you may be asking. I know, I’m shocked as well – but Mirren’s charming take on the Grim Reaper only registers a small upbeat amidst far too many down notes. Her interactions with Smith are the most stimulating, especially during a subway car shouting match where Howard gives a lengthy monologue about coping with finality through Lifetime-bred lyricism. I should say the same about Jacob Latimore’s conversations with Howard, especially when he skitches (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, anyone?) on the back of Howard’s bike and then provokes another outburst after prodding through aggression. These are the stunted growing moments Loeb’s Fisher-Price take on grief permits, wasting the remaining characters on undercutting reveals or beat-you-over-the-head obviousness.
Director David Frankel has the job of ensuring quality, but the ball is dropped almost instantaneously. He allows for Collateral Beauty to become a crayon drawing of three stick figures, one labeled “Mommy,” the next “Daddy,” and the last, smaller one with an “X” over her. I mean, we don’t even get an explanation of what “collateral beauty” is in the given context. One can easily surmise its meaning shines light on the wonder around us even after the lowest lows, but instead of shedding understanding, Frankel suffices with having two characters repeat the phrase over and over again in a matter of minutes. It feels like a disjointed SNL sketch, hearing Naomie Harris and Smith say “collateral beauty” like an epiphany will dawn by repetition (like some college cramming technique). Throw enough shit at the wall and eventually it sticks – still smells like shit, though.
This is a film with its fingers on the pulse of a corpse, mistaking it for human warmth. It’s paltry, Hallmark sentiments mean to bamboozle the senses, and even at that, an A-list cast can’t execute such shallow passion. Grief is a bitch – one mean, undefinable part of life’s dark side – but you need more to connect with an audience than manufactured tears. Half the film is spent watching Howard play with dominoes at work (on desks where productivity could be achieved), while the other is devoted to dragging you to the depths of sorrow without surfacing for air. Collateral Beauty is just another wolf in sheep’s clothing, happy to prey on your most innocent feelings without a lick of respect for human elements – don’t mistake it for anything else.
Collateral Beauty is a Hallmark tear-jerker in the worst way, so out of tune with human emotion that it almost becomes satire.