“What is the why?”, asks Will Smith’s high-flying advertising executive Howard at the start of Collateral Beauty, a kind of modernised spin on the supernatural redemption story of A Christmas Carol. The dialogue is not great, but you do find yourself asking ‘why?’ a lot during the film that follows. Sadly, it’s not something that anyone involved in making the film seems able to answer.
The film opens with this character establishing moment before skipping forward three years in time to find Howard considerably more withdrawn from the world. His six-year-old daughter has tragically passed away and his company is suffering as a result of his days spent building elaborate domino set-ups in his office instead of engaging with clients.
His partner Whit (Edward Norton) and colleagues Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) have had enough of it and decide to gather evidence that their grieving boss is unfit to manage the business ahead of a lucrative potential buyout. Upon discovering that Howard has written and mailed therapeutic letters to abstract concepts, they hire three actors to play Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore), and Death (Helen Mirren), and stage public confrontations with him, all while filming him to make him look insane.
If this doesn’t sound like the film that the trailers sold you, then welcome to the party. The basic plot of the film has been misrepresented by the marketing and with good reason, considering New Line probably wants people to go and see it. This is still a tale about reaching out to Howard, but not as much as it is about his three colleagues scheming to dick him over to protect their own interests and even make a profit.
If this film were even slightly clever, there might eventually be a subversive or redemptive element to watching Whit, Claire and Simon, our de facto protagonists, set out to gaslight and swindle Howard, a figure for whom we have nothing but sympathy from the beginning. Alas, the film tries to make our main trio just as sympathetic by relating their own troubles and doubts to the three abstractions of Love (Whit is estranged from his daughter), Time (Claire is worried it’s too late for her to be a mother), and Death (Simon might need something for that movie cough), but constantly undermines itself and them.
In fact, at one point, they literally describe their plan as gaslighting without skipping a beat. Of the six principal characters, only Knightley’s Love stand-in seems to have an actual conscience, but it’s repeatedly overcome by a few snarky asides to Norton’s lecherous Whit. At least Mirren and Latimore play the mercenary selfishness of their characters honestly, and I look forward to seeing the better Helen Mirren movie that this one paid for.
Writer and producer Allan Loeb might as well have emailed this script in from another planet, for the ignorance of basic humanity in every regard, and nowhere is that more evident than in Howard’s character. He’s a passive caricature, enlivened only by Smith’s restrained performance, all bloodshot eyes and repressed rage, who acts exactly like a grieving human wouldn’t all the way through, but doesn’t deserve this treatment by his friends. A sub-plot involving a grief counsellor played by Naomie Harris is particularly terrible, especially in the way Loeb brings it back at the climax.
All that you really need to know about Collateral Beauty is that even after a fraught development process, nobody thought to change that title. In fact, it’s said out loud no less than four times and the explanation of what it’s supposed to mean doesn’t make it any better. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one better title, but then there’s already a movie called Intolerable Cruelty.
Collateral Beauty is the most wrong-headed movie of 2016. Just like the wildly unrepresentative trailers, it commits countless unimaginable acts of emotional fraud on the way to an offensively stupid climax. In trying to encapsulate Love, Time and Death, it is a film that is impossible to love, which wastes everybody’s time, and gives plenty of good actors a place to die on their arses. Had anyone bothered to ask or answer the ‘whys’, perhaps it wouldn’t be so horrifically misjudged.
Collateral Beauty is in UK cinemas now.