The question is not, “Is Collateral Beauty good?” It’s not. The question is instead, “Is Collateral Beauty bad like Winter’s Tale or bad like Seven Pounds?” I am pleased to say it’s as bad as the time traveling love story with a flying horse (that’s actually a celestial dog), a gazebo that cures cancer in children, and Will Smith as an underwhelming Lucifer.
But we’re not here to talk about that movie. We’re here to talk about the hilarious, at times cringe-inducing, schlock of amoralistic moralism known as Collateral Beauty. To be clear this movie is bad. Really bad. Not so bad it’s good. It’s just howling bad.
Howard (Will Smith) is the beloved CEO of his advertising company and a grieving father. His daughter, Olivia, died of brain cancer two years earlier. Howard has understandably not recovered. We know this because at the beginning of the movie we see him setting up an elaborate display of dominoes. We’re informed by characters off to the side watching Howard, that it took him five days.
Then he knocks them over and walks away. He doesn’t even stay and watch the dominoes fall. Howard has gone full metal. Incidentally, this type of metaphorical storytelling is only the beginning so buckle in folks. David Frankel and his screenwriter Allan Loeb have gone out of their way to raise the bar of heavy-handedness. So much so that you may spend much of the movie trying to figure out why you care about anything.
Soon after his friends and coworkers Whit (Ed Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pina) discuss Howard and how his emotional distress is affecting their business, and themselves. They come to the only sensible conclusion. Hire a private eye Sally Price (Ann Dowd) to follow Howard and collect incriminating evidence. This way they can present it to the board and take away Howard’s voting shares and move on with their lives.
Side Note: Collateral Beauty is the type of movie that gives a full name to an incidental character; but not to the main characters.
After realizing Howard does nothing and says nothing, there is nothing to use against him. Well aside from writing letters to the three abstractions of Love, Time, and Death. It’s Howard’s way of coping with his daughter’s death. He rants and vents at them. So his coworkers, his “family” as the movie would have you believe strike upon a novel idea. Hire a local troupe of actors to play Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore), and Death (Helen Mirren).
The plan is to force their dear friend and mentor to have a psychotic break and have Sally capture it all on film. If that fails, they will just manufacture his mental breakdown by digitally erasing the people he’s talking to. Oh, to have friends like these.
This is just the basic nonsensical deeply horrible actions taken by these so called good people. There are other subplots that dutifully never come close to intersecting with the main plot. They take place in separate scenes, all involving two people, Love and Whit, Death and Simon, Time and Claire. Each one dealing with their personal problems as they plot the emotional and professional downfall of their close friend and business partner.
Whit is having trouble connecting with his younger daughter because he had an affair and his ex-wife, who we never see, divorced his sorry ass. Whit is also the architect of this mad crazy brilliant, possibly illegal, plan. Claire is stressing out about her biological clock like women do. She also tries to be the force of reason by saying “This is wrong!” before shrugging in exasperation and going along anyway. Poor Simon is dying of cancer, and they force the poor schlub to do the paperwork for this entire enterprise.
The great everlasting shame of this movie is the wasted performances. Yes, Will Smith is ‘acting,’ but he’s a charming man. He makes it work or tries to. They all do. Keira Knightley even manages to wring some genuinely touching emotion out of the overwrought flummadiddle she’s given. The script is so overburdened with pseudo-philosophical Hallmark malarkey it’s a wonder the actors find the moments they do.
It’s not just the plot that’s so devastatingly ridiculous; it’s all the little things. It’s the bizarre moments such as the board of directors forcing Howard to watch videos of himself on three giant television screens in an office designed by Dr. Evil. It’s the ear piercingly bad dialogue “I wasn’t just feeling love, I WAS love.” Or the exchange between Howard Madeleine (Naomie Harris) as the group therapist.
Howard: Collateral Beauty? That’s not a thing.
Madeline: Oh yes it is. It is.
Or Madeline’s surprise reveal at the end of the movie that proves Howard’s friends don’t know Howard at all. Because if they did they could have saved themselves sixty thousand dollars and just used Madeleine as a witness at the board meeting.
Another side note: Sixty thousand dollars is how much the troupe of actors demand to perform this stunt of death-defying improv. Twenty thousand each. Yes. They shelled out $60,000 to destroy a man.
Nor have I even broached the ending which might well be, I’ll say it, one of the single greatest WTF? endings of the year. If the ending is to be believed, then the Universe conspired to pull off a heist ripped from a discarded Leverage episode. If the ending is to be believed, then Howard isn’t just an advertising genius he’s also a man of Sherlockian observational powers with the Mercy of St. Francis of Assisi.
Collateral Beauty is easily one of the worst films I’ve seen this year. It’s a half-baked masterful train wreck of an experience. It’s not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s unbelievable. I’d advise you take a couple of friends Jack and Coke with you if you see this. You’re going to need them. They won’t help you forget, but they’ll help bring on the fun.