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Review: Collateral Beauty (2016)

Collateral Beauty (2016)

Directed by: David Frankel  

Premise: An advertising executive (Will Smith) writes letters to Love, Time, and Death after the loss of his daughter. His business colleagues hire three actors to approach the bereaved father as though they were those abstractions and respond to the letters.

What Works: Despite the many faults of Collateral Beauty, the actors acquit themselves. All of the cast commit to the material and deliver performances that are better than this movie deserves. Will Smith gives a respectable performance in the lead role as a father who is paralyzed with grief. Early in his career, Smith established himself as a high energy and charismatic presence. His role in Collateral Beauty is much dourer than his most popular characters but Smith delivers on the dramatic moments and makes the audience feel this man’s pain. Also notable is Michael Pena as a business colleague who is terminally sick. Pena is primarily known for comic roles but he does a good job here. The three actors assigned to play the abstractions are also noteworthy. Jacob Latimore holds his own in scenes with Will Smith, Helen Mirren provides some comic relief as a self-obsessed creative type, and Keira Knightly is charming as the ethically conflicted member of the acting troupe assigned to play Love.

What Doesn’t: The word “pretentious” gets used a lot and it is sometimes misapplied to movies that don’t quite meet their artistic aspirations but do have something interesting at their core. But in film criticism a truly pretentious movie is one that puts on the airs of importance and profundity when there is really nothing to it. Collateral Beauty is the definition of a pretentious motion picture. The proof of that is in the very title. The titular phrase comes from a critical point in the story in which one character tells a grieving parent, “Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.” These are supposed to be words of comfort and they sound significant but they don’t actually mean anything. And so it is with the rest of this film. Collateral Beauty carries on as though it has an important, life altering message to give the audience but it’s really just ninety-seven minutes of half-baked pseudo-philosophy. But more than that, this film is stupid and oblivious to the horribleness of its characters. The conceit of the story is that an advertising firm is on the verge of collapse because their key executive is so wrapped up in his grief over the death of his daughter. The other executives (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Pena) conspire to employ three actors to play Love, Time, and Death not to help their coworker but to make this grieving father look mentally incompetent and thereby force him out of the company. This is an awful idea—which at least one of the characters repeatedly points out—but the audience is expected to go along with it because of some vague threat to the success of the company. This cruel manipulation of a bereaved father could be a worthy set up if the filmmakers followed through on the implications of this deception but there is nothing to Collateral Beauty beyond the conceit. The scheme plays out and that’s all there is to it. This shallowness is also found in the underwritten side stories. Kate Winslet’s character wants to be a mother but she is too old to have a child, Michael Pena’s character copes with a terminal illness, and Edward Norton’s character struggles with fatherhood. The writing of these subplots is terrible and obvious and none of them really come to any kind of conclusion. The finale of Collateral Beauty is rather astonishing in how completely it destroys its own fragile logic. The movie forces several big reveals in the ending that are supposed to pull the rug out from under the audience but all they really do is punch logical holes in an already tenuous story.

Bottom Line: Collateral Beauty is simultaneously pretentious, ridiculous and disingenuous. The filmmakers seem convinced that they are making a profound, life affirming statement but this movie is really just a tale of horrible people doing detestable things.

Episode: #627 (December 25, 2016)