There will be many people who, thanks to the marketing, will be angry at the true nature of the new drama Collateral Beauty. The film’s trailer leads one to think that the film is a star-studded drama that is beautifully seeped in magical realism. The problem is, it isn’t. The producers of Collateral Beauty have committed one of the most cardinal sins of moviemaking by trying to pretend their film is something it most certainly isn’t. On the one hand, their methods are understandable because after watching the film, I’m not sure how else one would be able to sell Collateral Beauty. On the other hand, by doing this, they have turned their film into two entirely different movies.
Collateral Beauty focuses on Howard (Will Smith), the CEO and founder of a New York-based media company which he has let fall into times of struggle due to his inability to function after the death of his daughter three years ago. Unable to relate to anyone, Howard spends his time writing letters to death, time, and love as a way of dealing with his grief. Desperate to save both him and the business, Howard’s friends and top executives (Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, and Edward Norton) hatch an idea involving the members of a local theater troupe (Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, and Kiera Knightley) to stage random encounters with Howard. Each are instructed to pretend to be one the aforementioned elements with the goal of both proving Howard unfit to function as the head of the company (thereby saving everyone’s jobs) and also helping him deal with his painful past. The encounters inspire Howard to join a support group headed by the lovely Madeline (Naomie Harris), who has a past very similar to Howard’s.
It’s unfortunate that given the intriguing setup and the nature of the talent involved, the more prominent of the two movies Collateral Beauty shows itself to be is decidedly bad. A great amount of the film’s moves and central plot points are beyond emotionally manipulative to the point where nothing is sacred. So much emotion is thrown at the audience that it’s hard to believe someone didn’t stop and suggest giving those watching Collateral Beauty a break from all the revelations and tears. Not helping matters at all are the charcoal gray character motivations which the script tries to make excuses for that, frankly, never really stick. With the exception of Madeline, everyone in Howard’s present life seems to be capitalizing on his grief for some sort of gain. His friends and business partners want their job security, while the actors are in it for the money promised them by the former. Attempts at humanizing Howard’s friends by exploring their lives and troubles, not to mention the switching back and forth between cinematic worlds, makes for a bloated script and, ultimately, an exhausting and somewhat cynical movie experience.
And yet, there are indeed shades of a good movie lurking throughout Collateral Beauty which thankfully show up at the right times. These instances occur in the moments between characters in which the most universal problems of life are discussed. I’ve always been partial to stories featuring characters who have no seemingly discernible link to one another finding each other and making a life-altering connection. While Collateral Beauty is highly problematic, the times when it puts the script’s many sub-plots on pause in favor of letting the characters stop, talk, and bond, are when the movie gets it right. The best of these moments is when Madeline explains the idea of the film’s title to Howard as being the simple value and joy of the everyday and finding the strength to embrace it in even the darkest of times. Regardless of its misjudged execution, it’s hard not to applaud a major studio for rolling the dice on a Capra-esque tale in this day and age. Even at a base level such as this, a studio movie willing to focus on how concepts such as death, time, and love should be acknowledged and never taken for granted, is worth some form of praise.
The performances of Collateral Beauty are a tricky area to venture into. Some will say that the cast falters, while others will say that every performer is at their absolute best. The truth of it is that every person cast here gives the material their all. The problem is that the material allows them to only go so far thanks to an obviously re-worked script which can only spare limited time toward the people in Collateral Beauty, turning everyone into caricatures rather than characters. The result is a lot of great actors performing stilted material as good as can it can possibly be performed. The only actor who manages to rise above the script’s limitations is Harris, who is simply radiant and soulful as Madeline, showing a woman who carries her painful past in her heart but has found the strength to continue living.
The level to which Collateral Beauty will resonate with moviegoers will certainly depend on each person’s own life experiences. For the film’s press screening I invited a friend to come along who had coincidentally lost his father and had also spent time in a support group. For him, the film more than hit home. Coming out afterwards, it was interesting to see who was rolling their eyes while exiting the theater and who was wiping away tears which had come from some deep empathy felt for the characters and perhaps the part of those individuals they found within them. It’s for the latter group that Collateral Beauty was made and for them alone.