Film Review: ‘Collateral Beauty’

Collateral Beauty trailer
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Will Smith plays an advertising executive reeling from personal tragedy in a whimsical awards-bait tearjerker that reduces grief to a form of sentimental engineering.

It asks a lot of an audience to sit through a drama about a parent grieving over the loss of a child. The subject is rough — and beyond that, it has a vast potential for programmed pathos and fake sentiment. That’s part of the miracle of “Manchester by the Sea.” It leads us through one man’s life of locked-in sorrow with a sculptured emotional elegance that is never false; at the same time, the cathartic honesty of its journey allows the audience to touch a nerve of desolation and still breathe free. So it’s telling, in a way, that in an awards season that’s been tilting away from major-studio releases and toward independent works like “Manchester,” along comes “Collateral Beauty,” the big soppy whimsical lump-in-the-throat commercial version of a drama of parental grief. It feels like a Hollywood awards movie from 30 years ago, laced with the kind of four-hankie strategies — hugs, buckets of tears, New Age greeting-card sentiments — that “Manchester” transcended. By the end of “Collateral Beauty,” you’d have to have a heart of stone for the film not to get to you a bit, but even if it does, you may still feel like you’ve been played.

The movie opens with Will Smith, in vintage Will Smith mode — brash, ageless, a superhero of confidence — giving a motivational speech to the New York advertising agency he owns and presides over, but then, moments later, the image of Smith literally melts three years ahead. Smith’s Howard, now haggard and morose, with thinning gray hair, has stopped talking to anyone. The closest he comes to a constructive activity is setting up intricate arrays of multi-colored dominoes in his office, which he then lets topple as if to demonstrate an existential law: Whatever you create is destined to come falling down.

Howard, we learn, lost his six-year-old daughter to cancer, and the agony imprisons and consumes him daily. He rides his bike against the New York traffic. He writes letters — not to other human beings, but to the spirits of Death, Love, and Time. He sleeps six or seven hours a week. He’s a zombie, a man who has left life utterly behind. Yet there’s something undeniably a little Will Smithian about his suffering. He’s like the Olympic world champion of Holding It All Inside, and Smith — unlike, you know, Casey Affleck — doesn’t give off bitter waves of doubt or dysfunction. The message is that Howard can’t recover because his love is that pure and strong. He’s holding onto his grief because he’s holding onto his love. He won’t lead an existence that compromises it.

He’d likely stay that way were it not for his trusty trio of executive partners, played by Edward Norton (divorced and broke, with a daughter who resents him), Kate Winslet (a workaholic who waited too long to start a family), and Michael Peña (who’s got one of those tell-tale coughs — ’nuff said). They’ve decided to sell the faltering agency so they can receive a large payout, which each of them is in dire need of. A company called OmniCom is offering $17 a share — but Howard won’t even have a conversation about it. And so, out of desperation more than disloyalty, the three decide to cut him out of the deal by recording evidence that he is mentally unsound.

How, exactly, will they manage that? By hiring a trio of actors from a local theater company to impersonate — you guessed it — Death, Love, and Time. The actors are played by a sprightly Helen Mirren, a saucy Keira Knightley, and a TV-gentle street-smart Jacob Latimore. All three stalk Howard in public places, starting with Mirren’s Brigitte, who takes on the role of Death. She sits down with Howard on a park bench and quotes from his letter, and she’s just impish and knowing enough to suck this devastated man into the illusion that he’s talking to a metaphysical sprite. The other two, following suit, become his self-help recovery gurus (Knightley is Love, and Latimore is Time), dispensing platitudes and soft-hearted philosophical nuggets. That includes the film’s title, a phrase whose supposedly soothing meaning gets explained several times, though it may still leave you scratching your head.

What do you get when you cross “Manchester by the Sea” with “Touched by an Angel”? A strenuously uplifting Christmas awards-bait tearjerker. “Collateral Beauty” was directed by David Frankel, who has sometimes brought his work a real snap (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”), but this time, working from a script by Allan Loeb, he falls into a treacly zone of wan cute “feeling.” I’ve long thought that Helen Mirren doesn’t have a cloying bone in her body, but there are moments here where she’s a little too adorably elfin. The trouble with “Collateral Beauty,” though, isn’t the actors. It’s the movie itself, which keeps piling on the devices until it becomes top-heavy. A decade ago, in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith proved he had the stuff to make a down-and-out character stingingly authentic, but in “Collateral Beauty,” when he gets all red-rimmed and teary, it feels like the actor’s showcase it is, because the film’s whole experience of suffering is engineered. Instead of using its metaphysical-deception plot as a conduit to genuine emotion, it just pushes the gimmickry further, suggesting that there’s a secret reason why Mirren, Knightley, and Latimore are so good at leading Smith’s wounded hero to a better place.

There’s one other major character, the head of a support group for grieving parents, played by Naomie Harris, who’s as serene and comforting here as she is distressed in “Moonlight.” She and Smith create a real connection, but it’s part of the design of “Collateral Beauty” that no encounter can be free of its place in the grand scheme. That’s supposed to be what makes the movie satisfying, and on some prefab level it works, but there’s something suspect about a drama of broken lives that snaps together this neatly.

Film Review: 'Collateral Beauty'

Reviewed at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York, December 12, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a New Line Cinema presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, in association with RatPac-Dune Entertainment, an Anonymous Content/an Overlook Entertainment Production, a PalmStar Media and Likely Story Production. Producers: Brad Dorros, Michael Sugar, Allan Loeb, Anthony Bregman, Kevin Frakes. Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Michael Disco, Steven Mnuchin, Michael Bederman, Ankur Rungta, Peter Cron, Steven Pearl, Bruce Berman.

Crew

Director: David Frankel. Screenplay: Allan Loeb. Camera (color, widescreen): Maryse Alberti. Editor: Andrew Marcus.

With

Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren.

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  1. John Colt says:

    I lost a child…, but still I insist that this movie is a bullshit, Willl Smith is not an actor, but a goof, This movie is about nothing… It is all fake and all about making money. Look at all that cast, which was the reason for me to watch it… I am quite dissappointed that those actors, I admire, agreed to take part in this… so called ” drama”.

  2. Robert Hetland says:

    A review from someone who has never list a child, on this movie, is null and void, and so egotistical of someone to think that the “review” is valid. I’m sure you have your “professional opinion that is hallowed by all” (in your mind), but you you have just embarrassed yourself to those of us that have actually lost a child, and the life that follows. So sorry this outstanding film has intruded with your “feel good life” there are many of us out here living through this hell, and Collateral Beauty captured that!

  3. Swida1 says:

    Totally agree with other comments. I don’t understand why this movie is down-played as just another less than story-line. I think all the actors did an amazing job. Did I cry when Will Smith or Naomie Harris cried, of course I did. Was I saddened by the sickness of his co-workers, of course I was. Was I thankful for his push back into life by “the actors”, of course I was. This movie did its job. It moved me and that’s why these great actors do what they do. Give them a break!

  4. Julie says:

    I just HAVE to comment on this beautiful movie. I don’t understand all the harsh reviews. In my opinion, the actors were top notch. It is a different type of movie, I just wish that critics had more of an open mind. I hope people will give this movie a chance and see the beauty!

    • Hil says:

      regarding Collateral Beauty;
      I saw the film in December and was overwhelmed by the performance and very much surprised by the negative critics. I thin it is an intelligent film for all the senses ..quiet, sensitive and beautiful!!

  5. delzina says:

    This is a wonderful film… I believe that only those deeply connected with life and love will grasp the deeper meaning of it! Which is why I suspect the critics don’t. The Collateral Beauty is that we are all connected and everything is happening for our higher advantage; there is a much bigger and deeper vision for us all. The New York Times best seller Conversations with God comes to mind. I loved this film and I hope you will too!

  6. Angela says:

    Just saw this movie today and absolutely loved it. Although the subject is tough, there are so many life lessons in the movie that make it worthwhile seeing. Awesome job to Will Smith and all of the cast members!

  7. Karen says:

    Awesome movie. I loved it. Don’t know why all the film critics are bashing it. Everyone I know who saw it, loved it. Will Smith brings his pain to life and the viewer is transported right into his eyes – the place where all of the pain is unavoidable. Nothing like Manchester By The Sea.

  8. Filmlover says:

    Wow..what a long and strange description of reasons why you do not like the film…it is so long you get lost….
    And why compare it to Manchester by the Sea??
    Just because both were shown at DIFF? They have not much in common…the one is depressed the other aggressive..for good reasons.
    I liked the film – it is poetic, calm, quiet and touching. (Ma nchedter by the Sea being the opposite)
    The worst actor in it – Keira Knightly.

  9. Lisa says:

    It looks like Edward Norton’s “Pay it Forward”.

  10. Rex says:

    Omnicorp? Really? Thought they had the future under control and wouldn’t need some hipster ad agency under their umbrella . . .

    And really, can we have a moratorium on movie writers (here AND abroad, sadly) lazily injecting their characters into the supposedly hipster advertising/marketing world? It’s not that ‘sexy’, honestly, and the “look” crossed into homogeneity years ago, around the same time as did much of that industry’s output (look around you, people!). It’s so embarrassingly easy for production designers to construct these environments with very little effort, too, usually by filling an exposed-brick loft set with industrial lighting fixtures, reclaimed wood, faux-Scandinavian furniture, twee tchotchkes and (natch) Apple computers, and then just having actors and extras play pretend designers, probably one of the easiest assignments a performer could hope for: “sit here and click this mouse for a while”. Voila — character-building without needing to do any research into careers that might actually be interesting to see depicted on screen. It’s all so tiresome.

  11. Ben says:

    When I watched the trailer for this movie, i wretched up a little, it really is that bad.

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