It took us all the way until the tail end of 2016 to deliver the year’s most baffling piece of filmmaking, but director David Frankel has handily earned that distinction with Collateral Beauty. What is intended to be a profound, emotional dramedy unfolds as a bewildering series of horrible events perpetuated by horrible people upon their grieving friend for their own profit. The moments intend to be comedic fall flat while the moments intended to be tearjerkers lead to wild fits of laughter. Collateral Beauty squanders the talents of its extremely talented cast in an astoundingly tone deaf movie that gets the opposite reaction it aims for in each and every scene.
When we first encounter Howard (Will Smith), he’s at the height of his success at his advertising firm. His advertising philosophy centers around three aspects – time, love, and death. This extremely brief opening scene is the only moment that audiences will get a glimpse of the energetic, charismatic Will Smith that is one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Three years later, Howard is a shell of a man. His hair has greyed and he spends his work day assembling intricate domino arrangements. Howard just hasn’t been the same in the two years since the death of his six-year-old daughter. The once successful advertising executive doesn’t speak to his coworkers and spends his nights alone in his apartment, barely sleeping. The sorrow is so deep that sometimes Howard rides his bike towards oncoming traffic, but the cars won’t alleviate him of his misery as they swerve out of the way.
But business doesn’t halt for the grieving process and Howard’s firm is in disarray during his prolonged depression. His partners in the firm have an offer to sell the company and cash in at an above market price. Howard’s best friend Whit (Edward Norton) is recently divorced and doesn’t have the control of the company to approve the sale. It’s entirely up to the stonewalled Howard to approve any sale. Whit convinces the company’s other partners, Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña), to find a way to prove that Howard isn’t mentally competent to make decisions for the company and hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to prove his mental incompetence. The P.I. discovers that Howard has sent three letters to time, love, and death, using crafty means to secure the letters written in the throes of grief. Whit has an idea to hire a trio of actors – Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley), and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) – to embody the trio that Howard has penned letters to. It’s a means that will allow Howard’s friends and partners to be able to secure the sale of their company and provide their friend with an unusual form of therapy.
Because Collateral Beauty has to have a million moving parts, Howard also seeks some therapy for his immense grief through a support group run by Madeleine (Naomi Harris). She, too, has lost a young child and eventually Howard finds a sympathetic ear in Madeleine, though he still can’t bring himself to say the name of the child he lost. And yet there are even more moving parts to the nonsensical sensibilities of Collateral Beauty. Whit is dealing with repercussions of divorce on his personal life and his past infidelities have ruined the relationship with his daughter. Claire is yearning for motherhood and is incredibly poor at hiding her research for sperm donors. Simon has had a reemergence of the cancer that has plagued him since his youth despite the fact he’s a new father. Yeah, everybody is learning a lesson in this movie and all those lesson revolve around, you guessed it, love, time, and death.
It might be easy to say that there may be profound lessons in the original screenplay by Allan Loeb that director David Frankel let slip away, but that would diminish what an all-encompassing tonal failure Collateral Beauty is. There are plenty of reasons to wonder why this movie was able to attract the A-list talent that it did, but those problems are at the heart of the movie and not the subject of failed interpretation. The central concept of the film is a loathsome ruse motivated by greed. Whatever profundities the movie aims for is undone by the fact that every action is based on a lie for the aim of profit, and the movie is able to justify these by ham-fisted attempts at providing human motivations for every action. At the end, Collateral Beauty let’s every single character off the hook despite conspiring to prove their friend and partner insane for profit in a scene where Will Smith, who has never once shown a knack for observation beyond his own grief, is able to tell everyone directly the solutions for the issues that affect them. It is pure lunacy played with straight face and hoping to make you weepy.
From start to finish, Collateral Beauty is a jaw-dropping piece of cinema, one that is astoundingly inept in every facet of its being. The movie races towards its conclusion with a series of reveals that all intended to be extremely profound and yet each and every one of them lands with all the grace of a bowling ball falling on a bottle of ketchup. Collateral Beauty is entirely bewildering with its concept and execution. A rambling hobo on a street corner might have more profound lessons about time, love, and death than this piece of self-important nonsense masquerading as a movie.
An astoundingly inept piece of filmmaking, Collateral Beauty is as nonsensical as its title, featuring horrible characters doing horrible things and profound life lessons that sharply veer into unintentional comedy.