Collateral Beauty’s title sounds profound in a deliberately ambiguous way. Does it refer to beauty that’s provided in order to secure a loan for additional beauty? Is it the unintended beauty that comes from a catastrophic beauty attack? Or is it, perhaps, the “profound connection to everything” that one only notices during, and after, times of tragedy?
If you guessed No. 3, then you’re ready for David Frankel’s cheesy, manipulative, reprehensible and altogether batshit insane film, which despite striving to be an uplifting Yuletide drama, turns out to be a howlingly funny stew of eye-rolling twists and saccharine platitudes that will make one want to take a cue from George Bailey and head to the nearest bridge. Awash in great gooey gobs of treacle, it’s a work of such mind-boggling badness that one quickly suspects director Frankel has juicy blackmail material on headliner Will Smith and supporting players Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren. Because if not, Collateral Beauty proves that they all urgently need new agents.
That’s especially true with regards to Smith, since unlike his cohorts, Collateral Beauty isn’t a career anomaly. Rather, it’s another example of his misguided passion for “serious-minded” projects in which he either fights to protect his offspring (The Pursuit of Happyness, After Earth) or weepily mourns a lost child (I Am Legend, Suicide Squad). Smith’s latest falls into the shameless latter category, with a healthy dash of Seven Pounds-style calamity-with-a-plot-twist mush thrown in for good measure. Here, he’s Howard Inlet, a NYC advertising executive who’s introduced cheerily lecturing his team about the three abstract concepts that drive all human conduct (including consumerism): Love, Death and Time. CGI-segue to three years later, and Howard is now a broken man thanks to the death of his young daughter, which has left him with grayer hair, a bad five o’clock shadow, and a habit of constructing elaborate domino structures that he then knocks down—because, you know, his life has collapsed!
This state of affairs is of great concern to Howard’s partner Whit (Norton) and colleagues Claire (Winslet) and Simon (Peña), who fear that Howard’s sullen-recluse shtick is going to bankrupt the company. To stop this, Whit hires a private investigator to stalk Howard; what’s discovered is that during his downtime, Howard has been writing and mailing letters to Love, Death and Time. Instead of viewing this as a pitiful cry for help, Whit sees it as an opportunity to prove that Howard is incapable of voting on a potential sale of the firm, and thus must be pushed out the door. To do this, Whit has Howard’s letters stolen, and then hires three random actors in need of cash—Aimee (Knightley), Brigitte (Mirren) and Raffi (Jacob Lattimore)—to pretend to be Love, Death and Time in confrontations with Howard.
Brigitte aptly describes such a ruse (with which she’s totally comfortable, mind you), as “gaslighting”—a term taken from the 1938 play and subsequent 1940 and 1944 movies, which refers to tricking someone into thinking they’re insane. The fact that Whit, Claire and Simon plan to videotape Howard talking to Love, Death and Time—and then to edit the actors out of the footage, so it looks like he’s speaking to ghosts—underlines the rancid awfulness of their plot, as well as their character. Collateral Beauty, however, chooses to pretend that this ploy is totally reasonable, all while further focusing on Howard’s attempts to join a dead-child support group run by Madeleine (Harris). The true nature of Howard and Madeleine’s more-than-just-strangers bond is easy to guess from the get-go, and it’s Madeline who eventually gives Howard the low-down on the definition of “collateral beauty,” in a conversation during which the film’s title is repeated ad nauseam in a desperate bid to make it sound less ridiculous.
Alas, everything about this fiasco is the height of absurdity. Allan Loeb’s script is a laughably schematic affair: ominously coughing Simon works with “Death”; baby-craving Claire chats with “Time”; and alienated-from-his-beloved daughter Whit teams up with “Love.” Anyone paying attention will realize that those pairings aren’t coincidental. Still, even those dim storylines aren’t as lousy as the finale, which piles twist upon twist, each one cornier and more obviously telegraphed than the last. Everyone heals and no one suffers the consequences of the crappy behavior that led to the preordained happily-ever-after, because the film is too pleased with its own syrupy sentimentality and faux-cleverness to even momentarily consider the rancidness of what Whit, Claire and Simon have perpetrated against their so-called friend. If nothing else, Collateral Beauty is a double-whammy of wrong-headed intentions and inept execution.
At the center of this hokey holiday hellscape is Smith, here overdoing his mysteriously-glum-and-keeping-it-to-myself routine to an even greater degree than he did in Seven Pounds. Though he’s kept largely off-screen and silent during the tale’s first third, Smith finds plenty of opportunities to scrunch up his pained face at the mention of his daughter’s name, to grimace as he rides his bike into oncoming Manhattan traffic, or to storm away from his impromptu meetings with Death, Love and Time. He embodies Howard not as a grieving man but as Grieving Man, all mannered gloomy gestures and outsized upset expressions.
While Smith’s larger-than-life instincts serve him well in lighter fare, they too often weigh down his performances in dramatic material such as this (he remains best when in the hands of a skilled director, like Michael Mann with Ali). Then again, Smith’s bigger problem is that he continues to choose material such as this in the first place—a decision that, however born from a genuine fixation on parental anxieties, has generally led to disastrous results. As he showed just last year in the underrated Focus, Smith can still be an intensely charismatic and compelling leading man capable of marrying macho swagger, suave sex appeal and wise-cracking humor. However, after this year’s dreary Suicide Squad and drearier Collateral Beauty, it’s now time he moved onto something (anything!) that didn’t involve playing an unhappy daddy.