There must be another movie that wastes a talented cast as thoroughly as ‘Collateral Beauty’ does, but it’s really hard to think of one. The film desperately wants to be a new ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, a magical Christmas fantasy that proves all the ways that life is worth living. This ain’t no ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, though. It’s not even ‘The Family Man’.
‘Collateral Beauty’ is a putrid bit of aggressive manipulation and cornball philosophy. Worse, it’s not even bad enough to be a campy train wreck. It’s just nauseatingly manipulative and dull, a mixture of garbage and mediocrity with a handful of famous faces desperately trying to keep it afloat and failing spectacularly every time they open their mouths. Good thing it’s opening against a ‘Star Wars’ movie. At least that ensures it’ll disappear before disappointing many people.
The picture opens with Will Smith in his sad-sack “I really want an Oscar” mode. His character, Howard, lost a daughter the previous year and has been such an emotional wreck that his only joy in life is building massive domino structures and toppling them. He’s also part of a huge agency for which he was the heart and soul. What that company does and why it is important are never explained and hardly matter. What we do know is that his partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña) are in a panic. They are losing clients fast and need to sell to ensure that the business doesn’t fail in time for the holidays. Desperate to get Howard to agree to do anything, they hire a private investigator to follow him around.
During that investigation, it’s revealed that Howard has been writing letters to Death, Love and Time as some sort of perverse therapy. Hoping to shake him to life, Whit (Norton) hatches a plan. He’ll hire some actors to pretend to be those abstractions and respond to Howard in person. With a little luck, that’ll help the wounded soul wake up and talk out his problems. Conveniently, Whit stumbles onto a three-person acting troupe (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) around the same time. With the support of the other partners, they start appearing to Howard as staged ‘A Christmas Carol’-style ghosts and start to pull him out of his depressed shell (even getting him to go to a grief counselling circle run by Naomie Harris). Even more conveniently, the three actors take to their roles with such relish that they help Howard’s partners with their own problems. Simon (Peña has cancer), so chatting with Death ain’t bad. Claire (Winslet) is running out the baby clock, so she has some things to say to Time. And Whit is on the outs with his daughter after a messy divorce and could use a little advice from Love.
Yeah, it’s all a big bunch of bullshit.
Some might point out that framing a conventional supernatural Christmas story as a phony staging is actually a creative twist on an old cliché. They’d be right were it not for the fact that the movie in question is ‘Collateral Beauty’. There’s not a moment of truth or magic that feels right in the film. The script is far too manipulative and overwrought for that. Never will viewers feel immersed or moved by the proceedings. The movie runs through plot points and emotional arcs by cynically putting marks on a checklist. Allan Loeb’s screenplay has all the necessary components for this genre except for heart and passion. The flick is just a dreary exercise in routine, with over-paid Hollywood folks deciding what viewers need based on past successes instead of creating a story worth telling. Director David Frankel (‘The Devil Wears Prada’) stages it for maximum melodrama. No emotion can be played too hard and no joke said too loud. It’s obnoxious and irritating. Nothing registers and there’s no room for subtlety.
The cast are all quite talented and do their best. No one embarrasses themselves. However, they’ve all wasted their time. They commit wholeheartedly to drivel, but that doesn’t change the fact that drivel is all they’ve got to work with. The good acting merely reminds audiences why these performers should have spent their time on a worthier project (like, say, anything else).
Saddest of all is Will Smith. He’s spent about a decade starring in movies like this that he hopes will get him more serious recognition and a gold statue or two. They all tend to feature posters of him making a mopey face while wearing a suit. These movies are all nonsense, but awards bait nonsense that Smith thinks will work. He does make some nice pained expressions here and even gets some tears to come to his eyes. Too bad that work is wasted on something so instantly forgettable. If Smith wants an Oscar this badly, he should focus on making movies that mean something to him rather than garbage that he thinks will mean something to awards voters.
Ironically, all of these movies (including ‘Collateral Beauty’ to an extent) are in some way about following your heart to become your true self. Hopefully, someday Will Smith will actually heed that message rather than headlining garbage that sells it secondhand.