The Wikipedia entry for Collateral Beauty prior to its release summarized the film thusly: “When a successful New York advertising executive suffers from a great tragedy, he retreats from life. When their business suffers, his coworkers conspire to make him look crazy, in an effort to discredit him and keep their jobs.” The first sentence is enough to hook us; the second sentence totally undoes any goodwill the first may have created.
I was prepared to say I liked the film, especially in the moments immediately following the screening I attended. There’s a sort of neat affinity the cast has for each other, and it was nice to see them playing a bit within their roles. I’m speaking, of course, about everyone except Will Smith, who spends 95% of the film closed off, mumbling to himself, and withdrawn from anything around him as the film’s central character, advertising guru Howard Inlet.
He’s spent the last two years mourning the death of his six-year-old child, climbing into a place where only he exists to create Domino structures at his office (which he’ll only topple after making them) and ride his bike into oncoming traffic. As a parent of someone born with a rare condition, I can only imagine the kind of emotional hell of losing a child prematurely, but there must come a point where a re-engagement of the senses must occur. Collateral Beauty is focused on this re-engagement process, and it’s a curious thing to watch Smith emote in grunts and body language, a complete 180° from his usual loudmouth, “Aw, hell naw!” persona we’ve come to know.
Usually, though, this re-engagement happens naturally; however, the film’s conceit demands that it must happen with all the subtlety of someone trying to pry open a safe with a jackhammer. Howard’s business partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) – in trying to save not only their jobs, but every one of their employees – wind up hiring actors Aimee (Keira Knightley), Raffi (Jacob Latimore), and Brigitte (Helen Mirren) to personify the three abstractions of Love, Time, and Death, respectively.
These three abstractions were the cornerstone of Howard’s approach to advertising in his heyday, but they’re also the recipients of letters he’s written – they’re considered as a kind of “letters to the universe” thing – in which he insults them and questions their necessity in his life. Their assignment is to get Howard talking again, but with an ugly twist: they’re meant to engage him so a private detective (Ann Dowd) can film him acting crazy with the intent of digitally erasing the actor.
One of Collateral Beauty’s biggest offenses is not that it’s trying to pass itself off as a Christmas movie – this film honestly could’ve been done at any time of the year and we wouldn’t have noticed a thing. No, it’s that it showcases how much we’re willing to fight for the wrong things, and how afraid we are of confrontation and offending anyone. Whit, Claire, and Simon aren’t really bad guys, but they’re doing something pretty nasty to someone they call a friend; although this betrayal is worn well on both Claire and Aimee’s consciences, it’s still not enough to excuse any of it.
John Doe from Se7en once said, “Wanting people to listen… you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You’ve got to hit them in the head with a sledgehammer. And then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” Allan Loeb’s script opts more for the sledgehammer route, with all the requisite depth of a cookie sheet. The film tries so hard to be a tearjerker of a Christmas movie without actually earning it with solid characters and a good story. Instead, we’re left with as much false emotion as Aimee can muster as Love trying to provoke Howard into allowing Love back into his life.
These scenes between Aimee/Love and Howard define the film for me, as we see her with tears brimming in her eyes, treating the abstract of Love as a person who’s just been dumped by Howard. Howard seeks no connection with anyone, but Love hammers into him how much she needs to be in his life for him to move forward and live. Howard spends the entire film being talked at, not talked with, and we’re supposed to believe he’s going to change after that?
Most notably, the scene surrounding the film’s title makes the lack of depth plain. Grief support group leader Madeleine (Naomie Harris) is told, even in the face of losing her child, “to notice the collateral beauty.” It’s nebulous. It sounds deep. It’s a good pairing of words. But ultimately, it means nothing tangible, and the weight of this statement gets lost, just like everyone else’s intentions and actions. Collateral Beauty is as soulless as it is empty, with no nuance or anything close to resembling art; instead, it’s a kind of riff on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” which bears no more depth than a supposedly-“hot” Christmas toy which will only lie forgotten in the toybox in a matter of months.