Collateral Beauty is such a tortured soul, a movie that desperately tries to mean well despite having the most pea-brained premise I’ve ever seen. Written by Allan Loeb, whose resume has not been so illuminating, it is surely his antithetical magnum opus. A story for the holidays so fundamentally flawed it ceases to be touching and accidentally stumbles into the realm of absurdist comedy, while Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton and the rest cling on absentmindedly to professionalism with witless smiles.
But I say dump professionalism and fire your agent, because no actor should have to grin through a film like this, which takes all the tricks in the book, dusts them off and pins them with little shiny ribbons. It is convenient for convenience’s sake, then becomes something else entirely, maybe spiritual, or supernatural. I can’t tell which because no one in the film seems to have any clue what’s going on. And for all its sentimentality, it’s surprisingly mean-spirited and dreary, with a group therapist, played by Naomie Harris, offering such advice as “You lost a child. Your mind will never be fixed”. I’d say it’s best you keep such optimism to yourself till maybe after the new year.
The one who needs fixing is Howard Inlet (Smith), an advertising executive whose daughter succumbs to a rare illness. No one knows what happened to his wife and now he spends his days reclusive and mentally vacant, writing angry letters to Death, Time and Love, cycling around the city while his three partners (Winslet, Norton and Michael Peña) scramble to keep their foundering company afloat. Desperate to sell, the partners hatch a fiendishly stupid plot to discredit Howard by hiring three actors to play physical incarnations of Death (Helen Mirren), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Love (Keira Knightley), convincing him of his insanity. But that’s not enough. They call in a private investigator to record Howard’s outbursts and digitally remove the actors so that Howard will appear to be arguing with himself, not realising it’s almost impossible to erase something from a video without Chroma keying a green screen.
The idea is brainless and implausible enough, but Collateral Beauty sticks with it and keeps on running without a head. All the while I’m thinking, this is meant to be an endearing movie for the holidays. It has a good heart and understands the formula for heart-tugging, tear-jerking success. It’s just that somewhere along the way, between its head and its mouth, it forgets language and begins speaking in anagrams.
Will Smith is undeservedly brilliant as Howard, recoiled and emotionally stimulated, while the rest of the cast is either underused or underplayed. We see their lips moving and their eyes shifting about, but even the great Kate Winslet turns up with nothing more than a flicker behind her seasoned face. I don’t blame her, though – with material this cheesy, I’m amazed she turns up at all.
This is, after all, an unintentionally hilarious movie about serious issues, with a closing scene that’s nothing short of infuriating. Do you know how many stars would have to align for everything that happens in this movie to actually happen? What are the odds on the ridiculous twist involving Howard and his conveniently available group therapist? There’s a scene in a house on Christmas Eve, with Howard, the therapist and a home video, and that’s where I drew the line. There’s convenient and then there’s just plain dumb. Collateral Beauty has an a-list cast and a big heart, but, man, is it dumb.