Synopsis – Retreating from life after a tragedy, a man questions the universe by writing to Love, Time and Death. Receiving unexpected answers, he begins to see how these things interlock and how even loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.
My Take – Who among us cannot relate to the loss of a loved one, or to divorce, or loneliness, disease, financial hardships or simply feeling rudderless in life? We’ve all been there, in one or two of these situations or more. This film explores all of those challenges, while showing us how our troubles are connected – with each other – and with our joys, as well as with the beauty that always surrounds us, even if we choose not to see it. This David Frankel directed film intends to be a portrait of this form of grief. This form of story has been told through many mediums before and in some form continues to entertain the masses. But the question remain, does it work here? Not really! If manipulating another person for undeserved riches is your goal, then this is the film to see, if you think “It’s a Wonderful Life” is by far the best film ever made, you’ll love this one, if you don’t, you’ll hate it. Dragged into watching this one purely due to its star power, the film focuses on sadness and tragedy (one tragedy in particular), but rather than being uplifting and pretty entertaining, it’s depressing to watch a talented bunch of actors, who I guess needed a holiday paycheck and a reason to hang out. Some films manipulate the audiences’ emotions, while others just connect, the funny thing is it’s hard to pin point which category this film falls into, as it has some heartbreaking yet beautiful moments but the rest of the film feels just flawed. By the time it reaches its ridiculous, largely nonsensical climax, it could accurately be called a very bad film. That it is not among the worst of the year is a testament to the talents of its grossly misused cast. But it is not a bad film because of its sincerity of intention. It’s a bad film because it manages to make that sincerity feel disingenuous as it goes on, more and more so with each passing scene. The worst part is none of the supporting character stories are developed/deep enough for you to care. To enjoy this plot, we seriously require a major sense of disbelief.
The story follows Howard (Will Smith), a marketing genius, is the head of a successful agency, where he inspires his workers to do more than simply ideas. He believes that advertising is less about sales than about “connecting,” about creating something which resonates more deeply with people. But three years after the film’s brief introduction to this version of Howard, he’s slack-shouldered, unshaven, and only shows up to work to build elaborate domino tower patterns, if he does at all. Howard lost his young daughter to a rare form of brain cancer, and finds himself in the throes of an existential collapse, distancing himself from his friends and spending most of his time racing nowhere on his bike, sometimes against traffic. However, his firm partners – Claire (Kate Winslet), Whit (Edward Norton) &, Simon (Michael Peña) are worried both for Howard’s sanity, and that his inability to do his job is going to get the agency shut down. Their solution is to prove that Howard is unfit to lead the company by hiring a theater troupe to gaslight him, and a private investigator to capture it on film. As you do. Since Howard has been writing letters to Love, Death, and Time in an attempt to rationalize the inexplicable, the actors are hired to tail Howard and manifest his grief in physical form. Brigitte (Helen Mirren) is an old-school hippie type who dives into the role of Death with vigor, Raffi (Jacob Latimore) is the punk kid who stands in for Time, and Amy (Keira Knightley) takes on Love, despite her misgivings about what they’ve been hired to do. Together, they begin to validate Howard’s suspicions that he may in fact be going mad through a series of increasingly contentious public encounters; meanwhile Howard catches the attention of a grief counselor Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who had also lost a child. The first in a series of crucial logical holes in this film is one on which the entire film is hinged: that anybody in the film is actually Howard’s friend, rather than a craven opportunist exploiting a man who’s clearly suffering from some kind of mental illness. It’s really hard to believe that Whit, Claire and Simon are Howard’s friends, who love him! This film tries to enforce this logical implausibility, alongside the logistical implausibility of the aforementioned scheme. We really shouldn’t be thinking about the staging of such an elaborate deception, because the poor guy lost his kid and is heartbroken, but here we are, worrying about the angle at which the P.I. is holding her iPhone. Allen Loeb’s screenplay doesn’t seem to interpret the con against Howard as something particularly destructive; though concerns are raised throughout the film regarding the ethics of what they’re doing, the film never takes a particular stance on whether what they’re doing is right or wrong. Instead, we’re treated to the personal melodramas of Howard’s “friends,” each of whom get a distinguishing personal conflict to give the film something to talk about when it’s not playing out its bizarre, sort of terrifying scenario of group mental abuse.
Claire wants to have a kid before it’s too late. Simon has a young son, and worries about his ability to provide for his family because of his own secrets. And Whit is despondent in the wake of his divorce, and that his young daughter refuses to talk to or see him in any way shape or form. In a fine illustration of the film’s general approach to morality, Whit repeatedly acknowledges that he slept with a younger woman and caused the divorce. The film largely plays this for comic relief, before it tries to find pathos in Whit’s struggle. The thing what I felt hurt the film the most is the lack of emotional punch. I felt the lessons in my heart, but I wasn’t even border line crying in this film. It felt like they held back on the emotional punch, whether this is due to some production quirks, some shallower plots, or the fact that the trailer delivered much of the film could have diluted it. The film also felt incomplete at parts, as if other scenes were needed or perhaps scenes deleted to take out the incomplete feeling. In addition, the film is a bit lackluster from the various telling of the Christmas Carol. This film doesn’t have the terror or suspense that Dickens‘ three spirits contain, although they are much more entertaining. This film, despite teaching values, was just not as unique as I think it wanted to be. There were no grandiose twists, no outstanding spirit designs, and no key features to help make this film stand out from similar morale tales. I think I also wanted more spiritual interventions as well, another round to drive the point home to Howard. With a leitmotif of cascading domino pieces, it’s hard to miss the implicit connection of all living things with a nod to the swift passage of time. Having seen better redemptions, we should not expect such a powerful transformation of Howard, for this film lacks the attachment to life that films with similar intentions indulge at its end. However, where the film earns brownies are its performances. Edward Norton is charming & vulnerable, Michael Pena surprises in his predictable role, Keira Knightley illuminates especially in her tearful scene when Howard tells her, “You broke my heart!” Kate Winslet‘s gravitas overcomes the sketchy Claire character, Jacob Latimore holds his own as Howard lashes out about his daughter, Naomie Harris is strong & likable, while Helen Mirren keeps getting better with age. Her profound passion and compassion is magic. However, the film’s heart & soul is Will Smith. He effortlessly balances levity and power. While Smith continues to progress by taking on roles that perhaps challenge him, unfortunately, while the role maybe good for him he keeps picking films which are not. Like Seven Pounds, Focus & Suicide Squad, this film seems diluted by the amount of talent whose lives are made too big to just be supporting roles and thus too small to be ultimately satisfying. On the whole, ‘Collateral Beauty’ is a messy disappointment which doesn’t capitalize on its star power & attainable emotional quotient.
Directed – David Frankel
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 97 minutes