Collateral Beauty is bananas. It is not bonkers bananas, but camp by any other name is still camp. Granted what keeps David Frankel’s misguided melodrama from reaching the lofty heights of Book of Henry is interesting in and of itself.
It’s important to understand that at the root of the problems of Collateral Beauty is the script by Allan Loeb. Loeb’s stories tend to have a sort of absurd je ne sais quoi about them. A Loeb story often is more fun to talk about than to sit through. His scripts may be packed with grand emotions to match the fantastical script machinations but they never feel over as though they’re at the right pitch.
Partly because directors like Frankel never seem to realize how truly surreal the story is that they are telling. Collateral Beauty for instance is, on the surface, a movie you’d expect to see on The Hallmark Channel. The difference is that the people who make movies for The Hallmark Channel know exactly what kind of movie they are making and deliver, with varying degrees of success.
But Frankel and Loeb seem to buy into the idea that they are making a serious movie about serious ideas. To be fair part of being camp is that the makers and people involved are not aware of the thing they are making and by that definition, hoo-boy, Collateral Beauty more than qualifies.
The short of it is Howard (Will Smith) is a grieving father struggling to overcome the death of his daughter from cancer. He runs and manages an ad agency. In the beginning, we see him either being one of the preeminent bullshit artists or witnessing a con man committing the ultimate sin and buying into his own con. Howard is the type of adman who believes their job is to connect people not to sell things. Never mind that as the movie trundles on the varying accounts we see seem to be people trying to sell things-like an ad agency does.
Treacle-filled shallow sentimentality is only half the problem. For you see Howard is so deep into his funk he has been neglecting the business. An account that relies heavily on their relationship with Howard is dropping Howard’s firm. Curiously as I write this, I realize the name of Howard’s firm is never mentioned.
Howard’s friend and co-founder Whit (Edward Norton) a recently divorced philanderer, is worried about Howard, and about the fate of the firm. His business partners Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) agree with Whit, something must be done. Granted Whit’s solution to hire a troupe of actors to help prove Howard is clinically insane so he is forced to sign over his share of the company wasn’t what any of them had in mind.
To Frankel and Loeb’s credit they hint at some kind of self-awareness with Simon’s character. Simon you see is dying. I’ve seen Collateral Beauty at least three times and it wasn’t until this viewing that I realized that the first thing Simon does before he speaks is to cough ominously. Not to mention when Whit suggests using the private eye who caught him cheating Simon is less than impressed. “Oscar could have caught you cheating.”
“Who’s Oscar,” Whit asks. “My son,” Simon says pointing to the baby in his arms.
Moments like these sometimes had me thinking that like Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train people are taking the movie more seriously than it is intended to be. Understandable considering how straightforward Frankel and Loeb seem to be coming at the story.
Though I haven’t even mentioned the subplot where Howard stalks a grief support group run by Madeline (Naomie Harris). She sees Howard and invites him in and when he storms out she follows. The two develop an uneasy relationship that blossoms into something more when we realize along with Howard that Madeline is actually Howard’s wife. It seems Howard has selective amnesia. Howard learns this as he walks into her apartment and sees pictures drawn by his daughter and a video of her with Madeline and himself.
Frankel is restrained and doesn’t have Howard running out of the apartment into the streets screaming at the heavens; more’s the pity. Instead Frankel plays the scene as if it’s supposed to have an actual emotional impact, with Maryse Alberti’s score swelling as the two tearfully embrace. It’s a patently absurd and convoluted plot twist and yet Frankel orchestrates the reveal not in an over the top or tongue in cheek flourish but in a sort of bland predictable fashion.
Collateral Beauty is without question a bug nutty romp. I mean I haven’t even mentioned that Whit, Simon, and Claire, hire three struggling actors to play the physical embodiment of Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Lattimore), and Death (Helen Mirren). The idea is given to them by the private eye played by the always marvelous Ann Dowd. You see to help work through his grief, Howard has been writing to the three abstractions and reading them the riot act.
Honestly part of the push and pull of Collateral Beauty is that Frankel has packed such a murderer’s row of actors into Loeb’s story but has chained them to playing these characters with a straight face. There is no overacting or over anything. Frankel keeps everything at an even keel and as bizarre and unbelievable as everything becomes it never has you questioning what you’re watching. Well, okay you question it, you have to, but the actors wrestle a performance out of the material.
Yet, at no point in time do Frankel or Loeb ever quite convince me that they have ever had a conversation with a real live human being before. In fact, it becomes increasingly clear that the film thinks Whit, Claire, and Simon are good people, or at the very least good friends. To be clear they are not. Every attempt by Frankel and Loeb to wring a drop of human emotion from a dramatic reveal instead elicit guffaws.
But Mirren is great, she’s Mirren after all. The way she casually suggests to Simon that the other two have their parts cut because Death is the more central theme and thereby more important is impossible not to giggle at. At times Collateral Beauty feels less like a melodrama and more like an earnest exercise by a bunch of theater kids to try and figure out existential issues without ever really addressing any of them.
Keira Knightley as Love helps Whit with his troubles with his daughter who is rightfully angry at him for cheating on her mother. Lattimore’s Time needles Winslet’s Claire as he helps her realize she has sacrificed too much of her dreams for her career. By dreams I mean of course have a baby, not find happiness or fulfillment outside of advertising or anything so modern as that.
But everyone does their job, these are professionals. Their so dang blasted professionals that no one is really having fun so much as treating these characters that don’t resemble a single living breathing human being anyone has ever met. These characters don’t have any motivations outside of Loeb’s delirious story structuring. Yet, somehow, they do it.
Somehow Knightley finds some moments of truth in all this overly produced bedlam. Mirren and Pena share some wonderful moments together as they find depth in meaning in characters so thin a napkin would be too much paper to put them on. Collateral Beauty is an excellent argument against the accepted truism that no actor, no matter how great, can save a bad script.
I haven’t even mentioned the sixty thousand dollars. Oh yes Whit, Claire, and Simon agreed to pay Love, Time, and Death twenty thousand dollars each to help drive their good friend and coworker mad; or at the very least make it appear that he has gone mad.
Nor have I mentioned-no. No, I’ll leave that for you to figure out on your own.
Collateral Beauty is a train wreck of a film that keeps you hypnotized because you can see the wheels leave the track as the cars swing widely to and fro. All while the film refuses to yield to one insane reveal after another. The whistle screams to all who are nearby as the engineer madly keeps shoveling coal into the fire driving the train toward its inevitable conclusion.
Afterward, someone asks you how was the movie. A strange rictus smile appears on your face. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Next Week: Paddington 2