Spoiler Warning: This review contains major spoilers for Collateral Beauty, especially after the fourth paragraph.
Listen, I am one sensitive motherfucker. I am totally into a grief movie and I will buy into the most outlandish heartfelt sentiment. I loved Will Smith’s morbid generosity in Seven Pounds and my love for Winter’s Tale could only grow if it made less sense (like the book does). So when I say I’m disappointed in Collateral Beauty, it’s because its emotions feel phony, like a robot mimicking feelings it doesn’t understand. It’s not unwatchable like Why Him? or Office Christmas Party but frustrating how it could have worked if every step were not so misguided. It’s actually rather fascinating to analyze what Collateral Beauty wants to be and why it’s not that.
If you’ve read the memes you know that Howard (Will Smith) is mourning the death of his young daughter and neglecting his ad company. His partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) hire actors Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to play Death, Love and Time respectively, because Howard has been writing letters to the concepts.
Howard only has two encounters with each personification of Love, Death and Time so even if the setup weren’t nefarious, it’s a missed opportunity to update A Christmas Carol. Why not explore Howard really getting to know Love, Death and Time or at least exchange more than a few arguments with each? I wonder if there were more scenes in the middle that were cut to get the film down to 97 minutes. The whole scene where the actors go over the rules of who can see them or not expresses the very problem with the premise of the movie.
Since many of the more extreme missteps involve spoilers and since I didn’t even get to this review until after the movie opened, I am going to discuss SPOILERS. DOUBLE SPOILER WARNING for Collateral Beauty. Anything after this paragraph involves SPOILERS.
Collateral Beauty fails to establish stakes great enough that even remotely justify Whit exploiting his friend and partner’s tragedy this way. There are monetary needs and there are deadlines but none of them drastic enough to warrant such an extreme scheme. It’s not even that the company will go under. They’ll just lose a major client or two. But, let’s say we’re on board with this since the film seems to assume so. In its defense, we did agree to go see Collateral Beauty so we’re buying in.
Most egregious is the notion that it’s really Whit, Claire and Simon who learn something from Brigitte, Amy and Raffi. There is merit to the idea that perpetrating a misdeed actually leads to constructive life lessons, but you’ve got to work for it. You can’t just give them each two dialogue scenes and a revelation.
Whit’s whole arc is to hit on Amy and only gets self-reflexive when she leads him on.
The ultimate twist plays into the idea that it was really Whit, Claire and Simon who needed Love, Time and Death respectively. So the whole time we’re supposed to believe they are conspiring to make Howard think he’s the only one who sees Love, Death and Time so they can prove him mentally unfit. The twist is it was only the FOUR of them who could see the “actors,” so they weren’t really actors, they were actually Love, Death and Time presumably sent to help all four characters. That explains how their private detective could afford ILM level CGI effects on her iPhone, but then it means that the forces of Love, Death and Time are as misguided as Whit in spearheading this ruse. They may have helped Howard confront the business entanglement he was avoiding to move on, and superficially convince Whit, Claire and Simon to make changes, but they completely enabled them to take advantage of Howard. To be fair, Amy is the voice of reason who tells them what they are plotting is horrible.
Collateral Beauty also tries too hard to create elements that can be connections later. The woman leading a support group Howard reluctantly attends and a story about the hospital are vague enough so something can be revealed later, but I think even M. Night Shyamalan would say, “That’s too much, guys.” Also the scene where they say “collateral beauty” over and over is hardly as effective as the scene where Nicolas Cage says face/off over and over. They still didn’t give examples of what collateral beauty during a tragedy could be.
These are the big picture issues. The micro issues are as glaring as the macro. A lot of people pointed out the impossible CGI the private investigator supposedly did when filming Howard in the street. I’m wondering who shot his home video of playing with his daughter from Howard’s perspective while he’s holding her with both hands. Was he wearing a GoPro helmet? Whit watches CSI: Cleveland with his ailing mother. Isn’t that funny? Because they do CSI spinoffs in other cities! Howard writing “You are dead tissue that won’t decompose” is worse prose than “We have plenty of matches in our house.” You should be able to tell from his movie cough that Simon is actually dying, but when “Death” tells him, “Nothing’s ever really dead if you look at it right,” is she actually trying to make him feel okay about dying young? He’s no better when he casually acknowledges that Howard losing his daughter was sad, then goes right back to plotting the ruse with his cohorts.
It’s ultimately a case of Hollywood overthinking emotions. They can’t just do grief and healing. They have to concoct an elaborate ruse to make it dramatic. But then even that ruse is tone def. The movie feels it is whimsical and magical. I’m kind of let down Collateral Beauty isn’t a magnificent disaster as I’d been led to believe. It’s just another movie that doesn’t understand why its premise is not harmless whimsical fun.