Sometimes a movie is bad just because it’s bad, and sometimes it’s bad because it wants so passionately to be good that it chokes on its noble intentions. The last time I remember reacting to a film like this was when I saw Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a work so sure it was going to move everyone to tears, it forgot to actually give us anything to care about. But Collateral Beauty is another beast entirely, and I’m pretty sure I can look into the eyes of some of the actors involved and see the look that combines fear and desperation. And if the movie had simply missed the mark, I wouldn’t be so hard on it; films miss the mark every week. But when you tie a story like this to the very real pain of a father getting over the death of his young daughter, the entire experience feels gross and ill conceived.
Will Smith plays Howard, a successful New York ad exec who can charm any client into signing with his agency because, well, he’s Will Smith. Howard suffers a great personal tragedy when his young daughter dies, and it shuts his entire world down. His wife leaves him, and, although he comes to work, all he does is build extensive and crafty domino sculptures, meant to be knocked down and erased from existence. That’s just the beginning of the deep thinking going on in Collateral Beauty. Part of Howard’s philosophy of advertising involves love, time and death, and when he’s at a particular low point in his grieving, he writes letters to all three of these inanimate concepts, telling them what bastards they are for conspiring to take his daughter
If you’ve seen the trailers for Collateral Beauty, you might think that what happens next is that personifications of love, time and death come to Howard and try to work with him to understand the universe and ease his sufferings. But that’s not what happens at all. In fact, Howard’s best friends and co-workers Whit (Edward Norton), Clarie (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) are afraid the company will fail without a fully functional Howard, and they conspire to have him fired for being mentally unfit to own a controlling interest in the firm. They hire a private detective (Ann Dowd) to spy on Howard, and she intercepts the letters. The friends come up with a scheme whereby they hire actors to play Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore), and Death (Helen Mirren, who would be my choice for Love, if we’re being honest); film Howard ranting at them for destroying his life; and erase the actors from the video, making Howard look like he’s screaming into the air like a lunatic. Nice friends, right?
While Howard is actively not being helped by his friends, he works up the courage to go into a support group for parents who lost a child, which is being led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), and the two seem to connect, despite Howard having not really spoken to people in a while. Considering the selection of hokey moments in Collateral Beauty, at least there’s a bit of a connection, warmth and compassion to the scenes with Smith and Harris. Their conversations approximate actual human speech, but screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, The Dilemma, and the upcoming The Space Between Us) finds a way to screw that up as well, don’t you worry.
To make matters even more trite and calculated, it turns out that Howard’s three work pals each get assigned to the actor whose character most closely identifies with their particular shortcoming. For example, Whit is having issues with love in his life (in particular, his young daughter hates him since her parents got divorced because of his cheating); Claire’s biological clock is ticking, so Time becomes her friend and adviser; and Simon has had an on-again/off-again battle with cancer that is back for good, and he’s afraid to tell his friends and family. Cue the Death actor. And the worst part is that none of their advice is particularly sage, and each relationship comes across like a chapter in a useless self-help book.
Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, One Chance), Collateral Beauty packs an impressive amount of failure into a film that barely crosses the 95-minute mark. Many of the fine actors featured here have been in a lot of subpar work lately (Naomie Harris and Michael Peña excluded), but if you can find a way to make Helen Mirren uninteresting, you have a lot to answer for before they ship you off to movie jail. There are so many better offerings in theaters right now that if you actually bother with this one, you’re far beyond my help.