Collateral Beauty is a strange, ungainly ensemble holiday movie. If I were to try and explain it to you, I would sound like a crazy person. I’ll try to do my best without spoiling everything (no matter how much I desperately want to in an effort to underline how strange this movie is), but I have a feeling you’ll have a lot of questions. Those questions are valid, but before I get into reciting the plot just know that the actual film will have few answers for those unlucky enough to sit through it.
For the past two years, New York marketing firm executive Howard (Will Smith) has been in a depressive funk following the death of his child. If he’s not sitting in his apartment catatonically looking off into space or trying to ride his bicycle full bore into oncoming traffic, he’s spending his work days hunkered down in his office making elaborate domino structures. He tries going to a support group for parents who have lost children (moderated by a kindly Naomi Harris), but he can’t bring himself to go into the building. He’s also so tortured that he writes and sends letters of anger and despair to three intangible constructs: death, time, and love. His partners at the firm – Whit, Claire, and Simon (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Peña) – have reached a point of critical concern, as the firm has been brought to the brink of destruction because Howard refuses to interact with any of their clients and he won’t hand off the business to anyone who can properly run the company while he recovers from his loss.
So concerned are his loyal partners that they concoct a plan to oust Howard by straight up gaslighting him. They hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to intercept the letters, and they pay a trio of actors – Madeline, Amy, and Raffi (Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) – an ungodly sum of cash to approach Howard in the real world as the embodiments of Death, Love, and Time, respectively. The hope – and indeed the only thing driving the plot – is that Howard is broken enough to believe that all of this is really happening and that by interacting with the embodiment of these constructs he’ll find closure.
For a moment, let’s forget about the lapses in logic and leaps of faith such a plot – created by screenwriter Allan Loeb (Just Go with It, Here Comes the Boom) – requires of the viewer. Let’s also forget that despite operating under the guise of caring for Howard’s well being that the aims of his colleagues are annoyingly self-serving, and that if this is the best plan they can come up with they could have spent just as much energy and time picking up Howard’s slack at work instead of crying and whining about it (although there’s some convoluted explanation that states on a contractual level that apparently Howard is the only person authorized to actually WORK at this firm).
Forgetting those massive problems, this isn’t an entirely terrible plot. Collateral Beauty is set at Christmastime, but it’s not altogether Christmas-y. In this respect the Dickensian employment of three “ghosts” in the vein of “A Christmas Carol” could hold some weight. It’s unabashed in its desire to emotionally manipulate the audience, but there could be something good or at least cathartic in that for some viewers. But Loeb and director David Frankel (Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada) want to create a show-stopping, celebrity packed ensemble film instead of focusing on Howard’s road to recovery. As fine as Smith is in all of his scenes (especially a scene where he takes Mirren to task on the subway), he’s curiously misused and lost amid a cast of supporting actors that have as much screen time as he does.
You see, much like Howard, his colleagues are hurting, too, but they also don’t want to admit it. Whit has his own beef with love, coming out of an acrimonious divorce after cheating on his wife, leaving him with a young daughter who hates his guts. Claire wants to have a baby, but she fears she has waited too long. Simon has been lying to his family about his health. They each get paired up by the script with one of the actors playing the core constructs to try and work out their problems. This is where the film starts to break down irreparably because none of these tangential storylines are playing on the same field.
The interactions between Peña and Mirren are so delightful that I wished the entire film was about the two of them. They’re such strong and capable performers that they make the vaporous material into something genuinely watchable. Next to Smith’s admittedly balanced performance and Frankel’s exceptionally beautiful and creative use of Christmas lights to light key scenes, they’re the best thing in the movie. That’s not a slight against Winslet and Latimore, but both of them are pretty much forgotten about and neither has anything worthwhile to do. They might as well not even be here.
As for Norton and Knightley, these are two of the worst performances you’ll see all year. Knightley’s cloying, doe eyed optimist that talks like an airhead constantly runs afoul of whatever inexplicably unholy acting turn Norton is trying to pull off here. As written, Whit is kind of a sleazeball, but Norton works overtime to try and make someone so lecherous into a misguided charmer. When Amy tells Whit he should try harder to earn his daughter’s affections back, Whit acts in a way that suggests he’s only going to hang out with his kid because it will give him a better chance of banging Amy.
Norton sucks the life out of the film every time he appears on screen, putting on a disingenuous, often confusing tone and cadence. I was trying to figure out if he even read the script. He’s either improvising every line of dialogue Whit has and hoping that his fellow cast members can keep up (leading to a film with a lot of awkward, unintentional pauses that I am shocked are in the final cut) or he genuinely doesn’t care.
Despite all of this, I can still say that Collateral Beauty works in individual moments where the cast are able to oh so briefly rise above the material. It’s a good idea borne from a plot that’s in the poorest of taste; like two good movies and two bad ones poorly stitched together at the hip. This concept could work, but Frankel and Loeb are abjectly clueless as to how they would ever pull it off, and they never stay in one place long enough to develop or enhance any of the storylines. Despite the shaky ground, I was almost compelled to give Collateral Beauty a slight pass because the good was outweighing the bad (with the caveat that Norton and Knightley be cut from this entirely)… until the ending of the film.
The ending of this film is one of the worst in cinematic history. I hesitate to even call it an ending. It’s a pair of scenes predicated upon a twist, and it’s not even the one you’re probably thinking is going to happen. The twist that’s easy to figure out is only kind of, sorta proven true because Frankel and Loeb jettison the one the audience has in mind for something much more nonsensical and good will killing. Frankel races through wrapping up the storylines of the colleagues, all of them left unfinished, and forgets to give his film any sort of third act. Where the third act should be is a painfully manipulative twist involving Howard that not only doesn’t make any sense (and feels worse after the somewhat villainous colleagues ultimately get their selfish desires fulfilled), but amounts to the most head-scratching logical swerve I’ve seen in a film since High Tension, a film that sucks, but at least has a third act.
There had to be massive cuts made to this film either in the editing room or at the script level. This is over two hours worth of story material packed into a 100 minute frame. Even the film’s good moments come across as unsatisfying by the time the credits roll, and I refuse to believe that anyone involved with Collateral Beauty could look at the last fifteen minutes and think it was remotely okay. Instead of a low aiming inspirational flick, Collateral Beauty becomes a cruel, bafflingly half-assed movie; something that if you were to show it to someone who actually lost a child they would never speak to you again. If you take someone who is feeling down to see Collateral Beauty, you might, for a while, think your intentions are good. By the end of the film, you will turn out to be a terrible friend.