Occasionally, you see a film that is so misjudged and so poorly executed that it leaves you wondering whether or not the entire production was meant to be some sort of elaborate practical joke. Perhaps not surprisingly, these films are usually a mix of comedy and drama and they tend to try to deal with the big issues — life, death, love, and all the rest. These films are fueled by a mix of ambition, sincerity, and a total inability to understand how people actually think and live. Invevitably, these films come out at Oscar time and they tend to have surprising twists that are designed to tug at the heart strings but to also make you think. They’re usually have titles that sound good but don’t make much sense and they often feature the type of talented actors who really should know better. Audiences should also know better but all of these films have devoted fans who insist that the rest of us are just too cynical or jaded to really appreciate a good story.
2016’s Collateral Beauty is one such film.
Set during the Christmas season, Collateral Beauty tells the story of Howard Inlet (Will Smith). Howard was an advertising genius but then his daughter died and he sunk into a deep depression. In this film, being clinically depressed means that you ride your bicycle a lot. It also means that you spend a lot of time building domino chains. Because Howard is too depressed to do anything, his advertising firm is on the verge of going bankrupt. His partners — Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) — all want to sell the firm but they have to get Howard to sign off on it and Howard refuses to talk to anyone.
However, his three business partners come across letters that Howard wrote to the abstract concepts of Death, Time, and Love. And, realizing that Howard had some issues with those concepts, they decided to hire three actors to pretend to be those concepts so that they can film Howard talking to them. The plan is to film Howard talking to the actors and then use digital technology to erase the actors from the footage so that Howard will look like he’s talking to himself, which will make it easier to prove that Howard is not mentally stable enough to run the company and….
What? Yes, that’s the plot. Undoubtedly, it seems like there should be an easier way to prove that Howard is not mentally fit to run his company but the three business partners decided to go with the plan that makes absolutely no sense and the film applauds them for doing so. It does seem like, if they really cared about Howard, they would have instructed the actors to provide some sort of comfort to Howard but apparently, no one in this movie has seen It’s A Wonderful Life or read A Christmas Carol. The film assures us that making a suicidal man think that he’s gone legitimately insane is definitely the humane way to deal with this situation.
Anyway, the three actors are played by Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, and Keira Knightley. And, in order to study Howard, each spends time with his business partners and we learn about everyone’s life. For instance, Whit has a daughter that he needs to connect with. Claire is depressed because she wants a child. Simon is dying, which means that he spends the entire movie vomiting. Amazingly, no one but Helen Mirren notices. Not only does the actors help Howard but they help his partners as well. Awwwww!
After the actors all visit him, Howard is so upset by the encounters that he goes to a support group that’s run by Madeline (Naomie Harris), who lost a daughter (just like Howard!) and who is divorced (just like Howard!) and who has a note from her ex-husband in which he says that he wishes they could act like strangers again and hey, guess who her ex-husband is!? (Yes, it’s Howard.) Anyway, some mysterious woman once told Madeline that, even as her daughter was dying, she should always celebrate the “collateral beauty of it all” and I have no idea what that was supposed to mean but Madeline sure does talk about it a lot.
I like to think that Collateral Beauty shares the same cinematic universe as The Book of Henry and Life Itself. It’s a universe where simplistic thoughts are held up as being extremely profound and where no one actually does anything that makes sense. Just as The Book of Henry asks us to be touched by an annoying little brat insisting (from beyond the grave, no less) that his mother to assassinate their neighbor, Collateral Beauty asks us to appreciate all the effort that goes into tormenting an already seriously depressed human being. Just as Life Itself insists that life being an unreliable narrator is somehow a mind-blowing concept, Collateral Beauty insists that everything will be okay as long as we appreciate the “collateral beauty of it all.” It may feel like a parody but Collateral Beauty not only takes itself seriously but it also seems to be convinced that you’ll take it seriously as well. There’s something rather presumptuous about the film’s insistence that it actually has something unique or interesting to say.
Amazingly enough, a truly great cast signed up to appear in this film. Most of them turn in performances that are either forgettable or regrettable. Edward Norton gives a performance that is so annoyingly mannered that it’s hard not to be reminded of the rumors that he was basically playing himself in Birdman. Considering that she’s one of the greatest actresses around, Kate Winslet is shockingly bad. Helen Mirren appears to be having a laugh. Will Smith actually gives a good performance but it’s a waste to cast such a great talker as someone who barely speaks.
Collateral Beauty came out in December of 2016. Before it was released, it had Oscar buzz. After it was released …. well, let’s just say that it didn’t. Critics hated the film but it did well at the box office and it has its fans. I’m not one of them but perhaps someday, I’ll appreciate the collateral beauty of it all.