Part of me wondered if Collateral Beauty could truly be as bad as promised by the reviews. I got to thinking, hey, maybe it’s just being dismissed because such movies as After Earth and Suicide Squad turned the name of Will Smith, America’s favorite man-crush, into box office poison? This was before I watched its trailers and deduced that the only people who run the risk of enjoying it very much are either stoners or pseudo-intellectuals; anyone who hears a deceptively deep-sounding statement and promptly goes “whoa”. And maybe also middle-aged moms who cry a lot.
Collateral Beauty offers many such wanna-be meaningful moments and themes, plus an all-star ensemble so rich on Oscar power that Susan Wloszczyna compared it to the movie casting equivalent of “compensating for something”. In addition to Will Smith as Howard, a once succesful ad executive, we see such enormous names as Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris and Michael Peña in the supporting cast. There’s more but we’ll get to that.
As stated, our hero Howard used to be a respected and self-confident big shot in the advertising industry. But the loss of his six-year-old daughter to a rare illness has more than taken the spark out of him. Overcome by grief, he mostly sits alone at home playing with domino tiles – at least when he’s not busy writing scornful letters to Time, Love and Death themselves, as though they’re actual living entities with answers to provide, and even goes so far as to put these angry messages in his nearest mailbox. One character remarks that it’s no more stupid than a child writing letters to Santa Claus at Christmas time. Yes. Yes it is.
Eventually, as you may have seen in the ads, Howard indeed encounters and has conversations with personifications of Time, Love and Death, played by Jacob Latimore, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren in that order. These people are, however, only actors who have been hired by Norton’s character in order to make it seem more apparent that Howard has lost his mind and is unfit to remain on the ad agency. Or to help him change as a person in a way that’s totally not derived from Dickens’ Christmas Carol but the prior result seems more realistic. Whatever the case, Peña and Winslet’s characters are in on it, and the fact that the Ghosts of Christmas Whatever are truly in-universe actors should make the set-up less ridiculous than what the trailers imply, but that’s not quite the effect I’m getting. Sorry, guys.
I don’t want you to believe that I’m the kind of guy who’s quick to dislike “tear-jerker” movies where the intent is to say something about life itself in a moving way. Just because one of my favorite films of 2016 is the gruesomely violent (yet technically innovative) Hardcore Henry, that doesn’t mean one of my other favorite films of the year can’t be something as human and meaningful as Anomalisa – a movie that anyone who knows anything about life on Earth can connect with. It’s just that Collateral Beauty seems more desperate about wanting to appear deep and moving; it doesn’t feel believable or like it happens naturally. The film with the stop-motion puppets did that one better.
As for movies that more explicitly tackle grief, I am told that Manchester by the Sea is a far superior 2016 film that deals with the subject matter in a more subtle yet simultaneously more devastating way. Hell, even Arrival is oftentimes mentioned as a better example in discussions about Collateral Beauty, and without spoiling too much of a genuinely grandiose science fiction “thinker”: yes, I suppose that too is a film about dealing with grief, one that also does it in a fantastical way but does so much more cleverly and hard-hittingly than Collateral Beauty could ever hope to do.
As it stands, this final result is mostly disturbing (not in a good way) and hilarious (also not in a good way), as if it wasn’t tragic enough that it got a release around the same time as a certain war movie set in another galaxy. Goofy and wasted effort though it is, I don’t think that this movie will weigh too heavily on actors like Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley or anyone else with recent successes under their belt. The one I feel the most bad for for is, naturally, the Fresh Prince himself – mainly due to the losing streak he’s had and how 2013 onwards has been more or less his downfall.
At this point, it almost seems as if willingly reappearing in Independence Day 2 would have been a better option; a film that I actually found to be bad in an enjoyably campy way, though I’m not sure the audience reception of that movie wouldn’t have done him many favors either. But hey, it’s Will Smith. People like him always find a way. Even if it is through the support of insecure DC Comics fanboys who convinced themselves that Suicide Squad is a film so great that its critics just didn’t get it and are simply butthurt about something. I sense a faint scent of irony, projection and, I guess, just plain bullshit.
Oh well, at least the trailer uses one of the more soothing Two Steps From Hell tracks I can remember. I find enjoyment in the little thing, which I attribute to the fact that I’ve been watching a lot of CinemaWins lately.