Dir. David Frankel. 2016
MINOR SPOILERS WITHIN…
“I got it! It all basically says that you’re a natural part of life, we shouldn’t hate you, we shouldn’t fear you. I guess we should just accept you right? That’s it? I get it. Here’s the thing. It’s all a bunch of intellectual bullsh*t because she’s not here holding my f*cking hand.” Howard.
I want to start this review by talking a little about logic and emotion, and how we respond in different ways to what we see in a movie. Are these two things mutually exclusive? If I respond logically to one part of the movie with that cheapen its emotional content?
The respected internet critic FilmCritHULK wrote a wonderfully insightful article on this relationship, detailing the validity of logic and how emotion trumps it. This doesn’t mean that logic and emotion can always be separated, especially for those who review movies for a living. Will an emotional affecting ending that’s rooted in character growth paper over the logic of the plot?
Why do we go to the movies? To run a dry intellectual exercise on it to make you feel smart among your friends? Or do we respond to something more? Personally, I go to be entertained, to learn something about life, to feel; never mind whether its despair or elation. Movies should elicit an emotional response by finding some elemental truth in their story and earning that connection.
Collateral Beauty is a product built to make you cry. I do not use those words by accident, its as cynical a movie as I’ve ever seen. Got a load of Oscar winners and nominees in the cast? Check. Uplifting narrative about grief? Check. Set at Christmas? Check. Packaged and ready for mass consumption.
The trailer for Collateral Beauty sold it as a movie in which a grieving father is confronted by the personifications of Death, Love and Time to help put him on a path toward healing, starring Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Edward Norton. Sounds great, right? I would watch the hell out of that movie.
Except that’s not what happens. Collateral Beauty is actually a movie where three advertizing executives (and apparent friends of Smith’s character) conspire to make him look crazy to their fellow board members so they can sell out his company from under him and make themselves rich in the process. I’m not joking. To facilitate this plan, they hire a private investigator to illegally steal his mail, and discover he wrote letters to the ideas of Death, Love and Time. They then hire actors to play these roles and confront Smith in public while the private investigator films these encounters and then digitally remove the actors from the footage so he appears crazy. I’m still not joking.
That is literally the plot of the movie. It’s a staggeringly tone-deaf portrait of a man’s grief and shockingly cavalier with the idea of empathy, if the movie even knows such a thing exists. After all, why would you help a grieving friend if it wasn’t for monetary gain? This film is all the ways in which capitalism has become corrupted, why would one man’s health matter if you become rich?
The script pays lip service to the thought that this might be a reprehensible idea, with Keira Knightley’s Amy being the sole voice of reason among the sh*t show of characters on display. The problem is the film doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to explore the idea with any sort of nuance or depth, and Amy’s outbursts feel like someone on set suggested it because that’s what the audience would be thinking.
It logically acknowledges an idea but doesn’t do the work required to make you feel.
Collateral Beauty feels like two separate movies mashed together in a Hollywood blender, with the ad execs side playing like a breezy crime caper, and Will Smith’s emotionally raw portrayal of stunted grief on the other. His scenes at a grief support group and getting to know a bereaved mother (played by the charming Naomie Harris), while a little clunky, at least show some signs of exploring the idea of moving on. That the movie then throws this away for the sake of a cheap parlour trick twist is infuriating. And yet.
It almost works, in spite of itself. And that is all down to Smith. As his portrayal of Mohammed Ali in Ali showed, when he suits up for a dramatic role he can blow the roof off the cinema. Even in later, more uneven dramas like A Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds he is the best thing in them by some distance, just like he is here. Seven Pounds is not a perfect movie by any stretch but it gets a lot of the fundamentals right that Collateral Beauty gets so wrong.
Smith gets one great scene, an evisceration of all the clichés he’s heard, and it’s the quote that is at the top of this review. This passage of dialogue shows the dissonance the movie, with Smith’s character Howard railing against the logical things people say when confronted with grief because they don’t understand how it feels.
The movie makes this point beautifully in the dialogue, but doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to realize that the audience will respond in the same way Howard does; because all the movie gives us is cliché, without stopping to think about how we feel. The title alone is played as an empty platitude, with no effort made to show, or understand, that there can be beauty in grief, in memories and in moving on.
Winslet, Norton and Knightley all showed up for the pay day, with only Mirren and the always outstanding Michael Pena showing any signs of life. Their scenes together hint at a much better movie bubbling under the surface.
And that’s the problem. Collateral Beauty is a movie that wants to talk about BIG THEMES, it wants to be taken seriously and answer some of life’s big questions. It just doesn’t have the finesse or the capability to entertain them beyond the obvious.
It feels like a first draft. A good idea that is too logically built to find the emotional truth of the story it wants to tell. And that is so frustrating. It could have been part of a larger, more culturally important conversation about how men grieve and the difficulty they have expressing it. Grief should be taken seriously and we need to ask honest questions about how it feels, and those won’t be what we want to hear. There is a heartfelt blog on this very subject here and the footballer Rio Ferdinand made a moving documentary about it earlier this year, covering a lot of the same ground the movie attempts to.
Grief makes you cast around for answers, to look for ways to take away the pain. To find comfort in the ordinary and everyday. To find ways to smile when you thought it wouldn’t be possible anymore. That is where we find collateral beauty, in this random collection of events we call Life.
It’s just a shame you won’t find any in the movie that bears its name.
Collateral Beauty is available now on Blu-ray and DVD
I’ve always been passionate about books and movies and I want to share what I love with you! I founded Minds Eye Reviews to explore media from a psychological perspective, so as to better understand the human condition.