Collateral Beauty, the new feel-good Christmas film starring Will Smith, has unexpectedly won the “can you believe this shit?” crown for movies in 2016. The daffy but not quite this daffy Independence Day: Resurgence has been bumped to second place.
At numerous points throughout Collateral Beauty, I simply threw up my hands in exasperation at how stupid and lifeless it was.
Lots of good actors sit in front of a locked-down camera and deliver some of the blandest work of their career. The direction and script seem contrived to get filming over with as quickly as possible. The movie doesn’t even bother to explain its goofy title, content to believe that having someone repeat the phrase “Don’t miss the collateral beauty” over and over again is good enough.
Collateral Beauty has its moments — any movie with Helen Mirren playing a full-of-herself actress is bound to have at least one bright spot — but it’s basically a feel-good movie about gaslighting someone, to the degree that the movie acknowledges it. Yes, there’s a scene where one character asks, “Aren’t you gaslighting your friend?” and the other character essentially admits that’s what they’re doing. It’s madness.
Anyway, here are five moments in Collateral Beauty where I just couldn’t believe what was happening. Spoilers abound.
1) The movie’s marketing has completely hidden its core premise for no real reason
So if you’ve seen the bizarre trailer for this bizarre film, you know it’s about an ad exec named Howard (Smith) being confronted by personifications of Death (Mirren), Time (Jacob Latimore), and Love (Keira Knightley) after he writes letters to them in a misguided attempt to understand his 6-year-old daughter’s death, which happened three years prior.
But the movie never sets up the story up this way. Instead, it has Howard’s friends and agency partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) — because this is a Christmas Carol riff, everything comes in threes — hire three actors to “play” Death, Time, and Love.
Their hope is that the actors will jar Howard out of his fugue state, but just in case that doesn’t work, the partners will film him talking to the actors; that way, they’ll be able to digitally erase the actors from the clips, and have Howard found mentally unfit. (Happy holidays!)
They do this because, without Howard at full capacity due to the trauma of his daughter’s death, the advertising firm he co-founded is flailing. Thus, they need him to sell back some of his shares so they can move forward. And tricking him into thinking he’s talking to Death is apparently the best plan they can come up with.
It’s a dumb idea for a movie, but it’s even dumber that Warner Bros. sold the film as something it’s not.
2) Will Smith barely talks, but he’s still pretty good in this thing
Smith is an actor you hire for his raw charisma. He’s got that high-beam headlight of a smile, and when he sinks his teeth into some winning dialogue, he can mount a real charm offensive.
Naturally, this movie asks him to spend roughly half an hour communicating through monosyllabic grunts and staring lifelessly into the distance. He doesn’t even cry, because he’s supposed to be numb to the world around him. When he finally turns on the waterworks in the film’s second half, it never feels like he’s crying for a reason, just that the movie needs him to cry at that point.
Nevertheless, Smith is pretty convincing in a part that is all but impossible to play. Howard doesn’t make sense as a human being, but Smith gives the character everything he’s got; he and Mirren are the only people who don’t seem embarrassed by this movie. Smith has clearly been pursuing an Oscar for a couple of years now, and Collateral Beauty isn’t going to win it for him. But hey, when he eventually finds the right script that lets him get weepy in a believable way, he’ll totally take home the little gold guy.
3) Once Howard learns the truth, the way he reacts is completely ludicrous
First of all, Howard’s partners contrive to have a lawyer show him a bunch of videos of him yelling at thin air, then ask Howard just who he was yelling at. Howard starts to explain — he was yelling at a personification of a concept, etc., etc., etc., but the movie cuts away. (It also never reveals just how the partners get the incredibly expensive, detail-oriented visual effects work of erasing the actors from the surveillance footage done on the cheap, but we’ll assume they’re all related to special effects technicians.)
When it cuts back, the partners have told Howard what they did to him — offscreen. It should be the dramatic highpoint of the film, but a) the most compelling moment (the confession!) happens off-camera, and b) Howard just says, in essence, “Sure. You were right to do that.”
There’s absolutely no logic to this. Howard’s so-called friends just convinced him he was crazy. They convinced him he was receiving visits from the cosmos itself. They tried to have him legally declared mentally unfit. There is no human being on Earth who would say, “Good work, guys. You really showed me.” But Howard does, solely because the movie needs him to.
4) The movie’s first twist is really stupid. (Also, you’ll guess it very early on.)
Throughout the film, Howard lurks awkwardly on the sidelines of a support group for parents who’ve lost their children. The group is led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who lost a daughter, just like Howard did. After that daughter’s death, Madeleine and her husband divorced, just like Howard and his wife divorced.
Have you guessed the twist yet? Madeleine hands Howard a card that her ex sent to her on the day their divorce was finalized, one that says he wishes they could be strangers again. “And now we are,” she says to Howard, pointedly.
Because, yes, Howard was once married to Madeleine. And in the wake of losing their daughter, she decided to channel her grief to help others. (She’s the one who repeats “collateral beauty” over and over — a mysterious old woman uttered the phrase to her in the hospital, on the day their daughter died.) Howard, meanwhile, decided to pretend their daughter hadn’t died. Or something?
It’s not clear. It really does seem like he’s been acting all this time as if his daughter isn’t dead, and that’s why Madeleine plays along with his game of pretending he doesn’t know her.
I really don’t understand why anybody would do this. The only way it makes sense is if Collateral Beauty takes place in the same universe as The Truman Show, with every storyline crafted for a TV show that’s all about Howard, and he somehow doesn’t know the show exists. There are a lot of movies that go to ridiculous lengths to have other characters buttress their boring protagonists, but these lengths are more ridiculous than usual.
5) The second twist is even more stupid. (You’ll probably guess this one, too.)
The mysterious old woman who told Madeleine about “collateral beauty”? Yep. She was Helen Mirren’s character, because the actress the partners hired to play Death for Howard was actually Death. Or something!
This twist — that the actors are actual personifications of Death, Time, and Love, moonlighting as struggling stage actors — makes less sense than any other part of this movie. Not only is it dumb, but it yields for some incredibly awkward moments where each of the three pairs up with a different one of Howard’s partners to teach them something important about life.
Claire is worried she won’t have a baby. Simon is dying. Whit has a bad relationship with his daughter. These are thinly sketched Hollywood versions of real-life problems, and they receive half-assed, hand-waving resolutions. Maybe Collateral Beauty is missing an hour of footage or something, but I’m more willing to bet somebody read a first draft of the movie’s script, convinced Will Smith to sign on, and then said, “Put some Christmas lights on everything. We’ll release it in December. It’ll be fine.”
And maybe it will be fine! The Thursday-night showing I attended was packed, and nobody walked out, and people laughed quite a bit. Bah, humbug.
Collateral Beauty is showing in theaters nationwide.