Movie Review: Collateral Beauty

Will Smith as Howard in "Collateral Beauty" Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, LLC. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher

Will Smith as Howard in “Collateral Beauty”
Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, LLC. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher

If Collateral Beauty is in the eye of the beholder … perhaps it’s best to look away.

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

During this 2016 holiday season, if you yearn to revisit the visitations from three spirits who are determined to shake the nihilism out of an embittered man, then by all means fire up the DVD and have yourself a merry little A Christmas Carol. (Any adaptation works.) After all, there’s nothing that says the holidays more than the infamous Scrooge rant of: “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”

But if you choose to keep company with the quasi-spectral, unholy trinity in Collateral Beauty over the celebrated Dickensian ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, then akin to Scrooge, you may find yourself threatening the offending filmmakers by suggesting that they, too, be buried with stakes of holly through their hearts.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, Hope Springs) and screenwriter Allan Loeb (Here Comes the Boom, Rock of Ages, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) offer up a movie about a man immobilized with grief. It’s been two years since charismatic advertising guru Howard (Will Smith) lost his 6-year-old daughter to cancer – and he still shows no sign of climbing out of his bottomless hole of utter despair. And now, without his savvy leadership, his once auspicious ad agency is on the edge of bankruptcy.

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(l-r): Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña in “Collateral Beauty” Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, LLC. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher

Concerned that they’re losing their friend, boss and partner – as well as the business they’ve all built together – colleagues Whit, the “idea guy” (Edward Norton), Claire, the hardworking account director (Kate Winslet) and Simon, the agency’s general counsel (Michael Peña) hire a private investigator (a delightful Ann Dowd) to follow Howard, in the hopes that they can either figure out how to handle him or, if need be, oust him as head of the agency.

The private detective discovers that Howard has been writing and mailing handwritten letters to Love, Time and Death … which were the specific abstractions he used as motivators when breaking down the fundamentals of marketing to his minions. We see him mid-speech in earlier, better times, saying “… three things connect every single human being on Earth. We long for love. We wish we had more time. And we fear death.”

Given this letter-writing madness, Whit has a thought: If the partners can’t bring Howard back to their rational world, maybe they should try to work within his. To that effect, they decide to hire actors to play the embodiments of Love, Time and Death. Conveniently, three ideal actors just so happen to be rehearsing right around the corner from the ad agency in a theater advertising itself in the marquee as “The Hegel Theater Company.” (Which is, in itself, a sly nod to Howard’s abstractions, being that Hegelian philosophy places ultimate reality in ideas rather than in things.)

(l-r): Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore in "Collateral Beauty" Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, LLC. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher

(l-r): Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore in “Collateral Beauty”
Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, LLC. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher

The big question in Collateral Beauty concerns the three thespians: Keira Knightley as Amy, hired to play Love, Jacob Latimore as Raffi, hired to play Time, and Helen Mirren as Brigitte, hired to play Death. Are they actually actors? (The characters of course, not the actors who are, obviously, actors.) Or are they the otherworldly representatives of Love, Time and Death, temporarily turned into corporeal beings? And if it’s the latter, why are these so-called actors demanding cold hard cash for their services? (Now there’s an idea for a film: is there some ill-starred insolvency issue in the afterlife for those souls expecting their heavenly rewards?)

Will Smith continues with his predilection to star in projects in which children are severely affected (After Earth, Seven Pounds, I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness). While he’s convincing as a zombiefied shell, the script doesn’t allow him all that many shades of pain. Of the film’s multiple A-list cast members, it’s only Helen Mirren who lights up the screen. Playing a veteran actress who’s still pounding the boards, ever-concerned with her reviews, always angling to pad her part with extra scenes, Mirren provides an agile and welcome comic touch.

Will Smith, Helen Mirren in "Collateral Beauty" Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, LLC. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher

Will Smith, Helen Mirren in “Collateral Beauty”
Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, LLC. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher

Working against the gloom, the filmmakers have chosen to dress Manhattan in copious truckloads of holiday glam and glitz. The production shots are indeed beautiful, but they’re an odd juxtaposition against the bleak situation of this practically suicidal man. Sparkling, fantastical New York City Christmas scenes belong in sentimental rom-coms (Serendipity, When Harry Met Sally) or loony comedies (Elf, Trading Places). Here, the window dressings don’t add … rather, they annoy.

But the main issue derailing this film is the overreaching effort to make the vague mumble of “Collateral Beauty” actually mean something. It’s as if screenwriter Loeb was locked in the room, trying to come up with the concept that even in the worst of times, there’s the best of times (ah, yes, Dickens again!).

Rather than relying on an empty mouthing of this title phrase, if the filmmakers had specifically and compellingly illustrated this reference to ancillary splendor, perhaps the audience might have found a reason to be moved. Instead, we might as well exit the theater thinking that the universe is good and great and if we concentrate on looking at all things, all the time … well, we could miss a step, break a leg and spend the whole holiday season laid up in bed. The upside? Well, we’d have plenty of time to take in each and every version of the far superior A Christmas Carol.

God bless us, everyone.

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Rating on a scale of 5 Collateral Beauties and Beasties: 2

Release date: December 16, 2016
Directed by: David Frankel
Written by: Allan Loeb
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Here’s the trailer for Collateral Beauty:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.