On sinister friendships, shallow grief, mysterious coughs, and the secret dark comedy hiding within Collateral Beauty
Collateral Beauty Warner Bros.
Director: David Frankel
Screenplay: Allan Loeb
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Ann Dowd
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes / 2.35:1
December 16, 2016
(out of four)
To quote the legendary heavy-metal band Spinal Tap: "There's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
In an alternate reality, I'm laying out the exact premise of Collateral Beauty - down to nearly every story beat, every peripheral detail, every character, every twist, every far-fetched conceit, with only a few alterations here and there - and what I'm describing, gleefully, is a towering tragicomic achievement. Of course, that version - in that other reality - has an entirely different attitude about its premise. And a different star. And a different director. And it's positioned at a different time of year with a different budget at a different (read: smaller) studio.
That version of Collateral Beauty is amazing, a diabolical and downright mean dark comedy about three adults who decide to gaslight a mourning "friend" in order to seize control of his company. How do they pull this hilarious caper off? Why, of course, by hiring actors to pretend to be personifications of abstract concepts and strike up conversations with their friend in public, giving the three business partners exactly the ammunition they need to frame him as a complete psychotic.
Sadly, we were not lucky enough to get that incarnation of the movie. We're stuck instead with this David Frankel-helmed, Allan Loeb-penned, Will Smith-starring version that somehow interprets all of those sadistic ideas (and more) as deeply serious inspirational-movie fodder. The very fact that it thinks this story is inspirational or life-affirming (and believe me, I've withheld some of its more howlingly stupid details) exposes its latent cynicism, not to mention its hollow understanding of grief. This is a movie in which people go to elaborate means to deceive each other - and themselves - as a means of gaining a forced sense of closure*. It's a movie in which characters go out of their way to indulge unreality in order to somehow come to terms with reality. Altogether, it's rather cruel to everyone involved, and takes painstaking means to achieve that cruelty.
* Not to mention the financial gain. The film disingenuously argues that this isn't the true motivation behind anyone's actions, but it can't exactly pretend it doesn't matter.
If there's anything we can be sure of, it's that Loeb's pitch involved the descriptors "Capraesque" and "Dickensian." Probably more than once. It would be neither the first nor the last time that Loeb and his collaborators misinterpreted their own film. This is a movie with a dark soul, only it doesn't realize it. This is a Neil LaBute film masquerading as a Hallmark Movie of the Week. Emotional breakthroughs and moments of clarity have rarely been so quietly sinister.
Which, again, sounds terrific, if only anyone had realized how or why.
Let me be clear that I haven't revealed or spoiled anything that the movie itself isn't completely upfront about. The (supposedly) secret premise is laid out early on. The key detail - that the three people who introduce themselves as Love, Time and Death are hired actors instead of metaphysical manifestations - has been withheld from the marketing, but the wheels are in motion in the first 15 minutes. Which leaves plenty of time for the film to force-feed us its idea of therapeutic uplift, including but not limited to the use of various tacky and thunderingly obvious plot twists. The absurdity of its human behavior is couched in fable, with glints of magical realism and religiosity. That's fine, except Frankel - the bland but sturdy hand behind The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs and Marley & Me - isn't the director for it, even if it weren't so misguided from the start. He shoots Collateral Beauty about the way you'd shoot a romantic comedy - the bright, even-tempered, slightly overlit New York City, albeit warmer and a few shades darker in more serious moments, so that it starts to resemble one of those jewelry commercials we get bombarded with around the holidays.
I suppose that's fitting, since the film is going for a similar brand of saccharine, only by jumping through a lot of idiotic hoops to get there. (I never thought I'd be using engagement-ring advertisements as comparative models of emotional efficiency and restraint, but here we are.)
The story moves along at awkward beats, both in the clumsy way it reveals bits of information and the uncertain way it balances its two narrative sides - the three partners and all of their dealings, both business and personal; and Smith's long-suffering Howard Inlet, who spends most of his time alone in a state of numbed despair, pondering ... well, pondering not much at all, to be honest, but we'll get to him in a minute.
After Howard is introduced in a brief before-and-after - three years ago he was a vibrant, optimistic charmer, today he's practically catatonic, the grey hairs sprouting on his temples enough to tell us that time has passed but not enough to stop him from remaining a Handsome Leading Man (what, they're not doing scraggly beards to signify characters who've completely given up anymore?) - the film's early sections turn their eye on the partners. First they express worry and concern about Howard's state of mind. Then they decide to hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to find out what he does all day. They discover that he does basically nothing, but occasionally writes letters not to people but to Love, Time and Death - expressing, in various ways, his torment resulting from the death of his 6-year-old daughter.
After a chance meeting with an acting trio, one of the partners realizes he has the perfect plan. You know the plan, I already explained it to you. But there we are. In what can only be described as a desperate act of pre-emptive self-defense, the film at this point displays its only hints of self-awareness, as the actors bring up all the various ethical and moral dilemmas that this little scheme presents. The partners shoot those ideas down, and the movie wants us to believe everyone is in it for the most honorable of reasons, and that this is literally the best idea any of them could come up with.
The partners' own lives begin to come into focus. Edward Norton tells us that the business is in real trouble, and that this is very bad news for him because he lost his fortune in a messy divorce that also alienated him from the daughter he adores. He starts hanging out with the actress (Keira Knightley) who is playing the role of Love.
Then there's Kate Winslet, who sits down at her desk one day, logs onto her computer in the middle of a very publicly visible office space, and promptly starts looking for sperm. She soon starts hanging out with the actor (Jacob Latimore) who is playing the role of Time. (She's running out of time, you see.)
And finally, there's the youngest of the three business partners, Michael Peña. "Couch cough," Michael Peña says. "Cough cough."
Don't worry about it, the cough probably means nothing. Anyway, he starts hanging around with Helen Mirren, seemingly the alpha of this thespian trio, who has taken on the all-important role of Death.
And then finally there's Will Smith, who, when he isn't moping in his apartment or a nearby dog park, hangs around near a support group for grieving parents. He hesitantly gets to know the leader of the group, Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who also lost a daughter. Her daughter was also six.
These are the facts of the case. I am simply the messenger.
So we have now returned to the subject of Will Smith's character, which would be the single biggest problem (by far) in most other movies, but in a movie like this one, is merely a problem among many. The character is, however, a flaw that's emblematic of Collateral Beauty's most fundamental disorder.
About those letters. The anguished letters he writes to Love, Time and Death. What's funny about those letters is that, while purportedly relevant to the deep pain in Howard's soul, they are never anything but a device. We don't know him as a character at all, so there's nothing meaningful in his anger at any of those three ideas. It's not simply a device - it's exclusively a device, rather than any sort of evocation of his experience or his pain. This speaks volumes about the utter hollowness of the character. To make matters worse: Love, time and death were the very same concepts that happy, pre-tragedy Howard used to motivate the young professionals at his advertising agency - the three pillars that he wanted them to use in order to sell products to people. After the fact, he feels "betrayed" by ... uh, by those three themes he used in his motivational speeches? The movie seems to treat his opening-scene monologue - and in effect advertising itself - as some sort of noble act. Let's get this straight: When this man's life falls apart, he responds by rebelling against ... his own corporate marketing strategy? And we're supposed to find this moving? Inspiring, even? That's basically Collateral Beauty in a nutshell: It mistakes cheap platitudes for profound statements. It's a movie custom-designed for people who tear up at Zales commercials.
And it all revolves around Smith's character, a complete cipher. There's nothing nuanced or complicated about his experience. He is simply a blank - a shallow, cartoonish impression of what a detached, grieving human would be. A glorified stand-in. Smith seems to have alarmingly trite leanings whenever he's in Serious Actor mode, and this is the most cringe-inducing example yet.
One of the film's early moments is of Smith in his office, putting together an elaborate domino display, knocking it over, and quietly leaving. It is a big, dumb, obvious metaphor, which later turns out to also be not a metaphor at all. The non-metaphor version is ... well, it's truly impressive in its deranged simplemindedness. I wanted to leap out of my seat and offer it the most ironic standing ovation of all-time. At least if it had remained a metaphor - silly or not - that would have been evidence of the sort of mindset you'd probably need to make a movie like this work. Putting aside the mid-90s LaBute version running through my head, if you've got a concept this explicitly ridiculous, and this nakedly sentimental, you need someone who can go big with it. Nothing is unsalvageable; not even the worst idea. Frankel and Loeb simply don't have the cinematic sensibility to pull it off. All they can muster is the greeting card.