TL;DR – Collateral Beauty has me wondering how projects in Hollywood gets greenlit, how did this mess of a film pass through so many different layers of approval, and at no point did someone go ‘Hey maybe this is a terrible idea for a film’
Score – 2 out of 5 stars
It is ironic that a film about an advertising company would be lambasted in the press and critic circles for the advertising of the film. Indeed, all of this would actually be quite amusing if not for the fact that Collateral Beauty fails spectacularly on nearly every front. How a film with this much talent, yet such a clearly terrible premise for a film, got put into production I do not know. Of course there are a few saving graces for Collateral Beauty, which is what stopped it from getting a lower score than this, but I can tell you right now, unless we have a truly terrible year for cinema I know this will be on my worst films of 2017 list, and we are only three films into the new year.
Now I do have to say from the start I went into Collateral Beauty already knowing some of the fallout from its advertising campaign, so it was not as blank a slate as I would like before I watch a film, and I cannot exclude the possibility that some of this rubbed off on me and impacted on my enjoyment of the film. However, I don’t feel this was the case, as I am by far not the only person to take issue with the structure and other elements of Collateral Beauty, but also, this is a film which is in a genre which always affect me on an emotion level, and Collateral Beauty fell flat for me. For that to happen the film would have to be working hard to stop me from connecting with the emotions on screen. Now because one of the big issues with Collateral Beauty happens right at the start and continues throughout the film, there is no real way to analyse the film without immediately heading into spoilers, for that reason [SPOILERS] will now be engaged for the rest of the review.
Before we get started we need to set the scene, Howard (Will Smith) is the head of a very successful advertising company that he helped found and build with Whit (Edward Norton), Simon (Michael Peña) and Claire (Kate Winslet). Everyone is happy because the firm is successful, building itself on three principles Love, Time, and Death, which is the focus of their advertising. Everyone is happy and having a good time, and then jump cut to three years later and everything is a mess. Howard is off building domino contraptions on his desks and not working. We soon find out why in the last three years he lost his daughter and he is not dealing with the loss at all. This is a good start for a story, add upon this, Howard starts writing to Love, Time, and Death as a way of dealing with his death, and you have the set up for a fascinating look at grief, death, loss, and finding meaning after tragedy. Or this would have been a good set up if this had been a competent story, produced by people with some understanding of how emotion works.
So let’s work through the thought process of Howard’s ‘friends’ and co-workers Whit, Simon, and Claire as they deal with this situation. Since Howard is not working, and he was their main link to several clients, business is drying up and there has been a takeover offer given for the company, but Howard controls 60% of the votes needed to sell, so what do you do. Well, first you hire a private investigator to follow him around to see if he does anything that they could use to declare him impaired (because only coming into work to build domino contraptions is not enough), which only found those letters. So when that fails what do you do?, oh you pay three theatre actors Amy (Keira Knightley), Raffi (Jacob Latimore ) & Brigitte (Helen Mirren) to approach Howard as the personifications of Love, Time, and Death respectively, and confront him over the letters. Now when this does not work what do you do? Oh, you get those actors to confront him again, film it all, delete the actors in post-production, and use the film of him yelling into thin air as evidence as to his impairment. Ok, let’s take a moment to absorb all that, these are terrible people, truly awful, and yes the movie goes out of its way to show that they all had motivations, but that does not change the fact that they are truly awful people.
Now putting aside the technical fact that that’s not a good way to film something if your intention is to edit people out, actually no, let’s not blast past this. It is fairly common when you are watching a Hollywood film and a scene involving a medical procedure, or hacking a computer, or one of a number of other things, they usually get it so wrong it is laughable. Now, most of the time you can excuse it because they are filmmakers, not doctors, so it is understandable that they might not understand the intricacies of brain surgery. However, that argument does not work when it comes to filmmaking which I would have to assume that a director would have a good understanding about. While technology is getting better, it is highly doubtful that given the tight timeframe that anyone would be able to digitally remove Love, Time & Death from the videos and replace them frame by frame with a background and have it in any way convincing. There is a reason filmmakers use green screens and mo-cap technology when doing this. To the point when they show the edited footage it is clear that it is just Will Smith acting to thin air. Ok rant aside, and technology aside, let’s work through this, the best way clearly functional human beings found to solve their problem is to gaslight their good friend and boss. Now you may think that I will not be as harsh on them here because one of them asked this very question, but you would be wrong, indeed it worse because someone raised this and they still went through with it. What’s worse is that when Howard is confronted by the footage and realises what happens he is ok with it.
Now there is a point towards the end where I thought that maybe, just maybe, Collateral Beauty was going to redeem itself. First, alongside the gaslighting story we have Howard starting to reconnect with his grief and beginning to talk about it with a group counselling sessions run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris) who lost a daughter to cancer. As well as this, while the story was terrible, Will Smith’s acting when confronting Time, Love & Death was visceral and compelling. But the moment Collateral Beauty started to come around it decided to do not one, but two twist endings, and truly terrible twists at that. First we discover that Madeleine is not just the head of the group therapy sessions, she is actually his former wife, this truly stupid move immediately wrecked any emotional attachment I had been making with the film, and trust me I am an easy lay with these types of films, indeed I have a whole category dedicated to those types of films. But then Collateral Beauty was not done with stupid choices because in the final scene the movie shows that there were no actors, and in fact, Amy, Raff, and Brigitte were actually the real personifications of Love, Time & Death. I do not have an eye roll big enough for this rubbish, seriously, I believe I was sitting there with an open mouth stare of the stupidity of it all. All that twist does is ask more questions than it answers, like why did they insist on being paid 20 grand, why him and no one else, what is the mythology that they are a part of, etc., etc. Though ironically it means that all those ads people hated for being duplicitous were actually kind of true.
In the end, it looks like Collateral Beauty will actually end up turning a profit even with all the bad press and the fact that it is a terrible movie, and that may just be the draw of the talent in this movie alone. However, I hope that the people greenlighting films take to heart that this had the potential to be a really good film and if you had taken your time and worked on this terrible story you could have seen an amazing return on your investment rather than just breaking even. It was only the consummate professionalism of the actors that stopped this from being a complete write-off. I cannot recommend Collateral Beauty at all, and I highly recommend that you instead give it a miss. If you want to watch a good movie that deals with the price of lost check out Arrival (See Review) if it is still in cinemas near you or even Rogue One (See Review) which dealt with these themes much better, or if you are looking for a romantic date film then La La Land (See Review) is a much better choice.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (Warning, Trailer does not match the final product)
Directed by – David Frankel
Written by – Allan Loeb
Music by – Theodore Shapiro
Cinematography by – Maryse Alberti
Starring – Will Smith, Edward Norton, Michael Peña, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore & Helen Mirren.
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG-13