There have been many films about life and death and grief, and how things like that affect a variety of people. Collateral Beauty takes that one-step beyond with a complex look at human emotions that requires a little patience to get into its overly-complicated premise.
When we meet Will Smith’s ad executive Howard, he’s about to start his own agency along with his best friend Whit (Edward Norton). Three years later—literally a minute later in movie time—everything has come apart for Howard after the death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s left devastated and uncommunicative while the company has been floundering.
In order to sell the company, Whit and the two remaining partners Claire and Simon (Kate WInslet, Michael Peña) need to get Howard out of the equation. Hearing that Howard’s been writing angry letters to Death, Love, and Time, they decide to hire a trio of actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) to portray the human incarnations of those esoteric entities in order to interact with Howard. While his partners are figuring out how to oust their friend, Howard tries to get help from a grief counselor (Naomie Harris).
Written by Allan Loeb, Collateral Beauty is the type of movie that cynical critics will immediately dismiss because heaven forbid, it deals with real human emotions rather than who can design the coolest shot. Granted, it’s a strange premise to get your head around, and an even harder one to market, which may be why Warner Bros. are going for the blandest and most generic campaign possible.
What makes the film interesting is how seriously the three actors take their roles with Mirren portraying Death, Latimore (from The Maze Runner) portraying Time, and Knightley as Love. Each of the partners is paired off accordingly with most of Peña’s scenes being with Mirren, Winslet paired with Latimore, and Edward Norton linked to Knightley. All of the execs are dealing with their own moral quandaries that require them to be helped themselves, too: Whit tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter after splitting from his wife; Claire is deciding whether to have her own baby; and Simon is facing something far more terminal.
The correlations between the three actors and the ghosts from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are obvious and probably deliberate. But in this case, the three actors have to get Howard riled up enough for a private eye to catch him on camera yelling at “no one,” since he believes he’s the only one that can see these entities.
Despite the strange direction the plot takes, this is a film that goes with old school traditional values in the vein of movies like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, without driving the Christmas holiday or meaning down your throat.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) gives the entire film the type of warmth needed when handling difficult material, and that helps keep you invested, even if you don’t always know what’s happening. He’s made a great looking film that uses New York in winter to its fullest, creating a glossy postcard of a movie that makes the city far more glamorous than it actually is.
In some ways, Smith ends up being the weakest part of his own movie, because his performance is somewhat erratic compared to others, especially as we watch the sullen and unshaven Howard riding his bike through New York traffic and acting with little rhyme or reason. The rest of the cast makes up for it with Mirren being the standout, and Norton showing why it’s always such a pleasure seeing him on screen since he’s given some nice moments with Knightley, as well as with his teen daughter.
There’s a slight last act twist that might detract from any good will the film has garnered up until that point, maybe because it’s a little hard to fathom. To some, the movie might also feel overly manipulative, especially Theodore Shapiro’s scoring, but to others, it’s nice to watch a film that isn’t cynical or mean-spirited in a world that’s gotten increasingly so.
Collateral Beauty doesn’t feel like the type of movie that will connect with everyone who sees it, and honestly, you might leave the movie still not knowing what “collateral beauty” is exactly, but it seems that everyone involved means well, and there’s a Nancy Meyers quality to the movie that just seems to work.
Collateral Beauty opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 16.