COLLATERAL BEAUTY Review: A Cruel Movie That Thinks It’s Cute

2016’s not done hurting us yet.

A number of really good actors get to practice their skills in Collateral Beauty. An entire crew of folks got money to work on the film, surely some with children or charities to support. Maybe little actor kids in small towns filled with people who don’t understand them will blindly pay attention to the parts of this movie that glorify their theatrical passion, and they’ll get that extra kick they needed to follow their dreams. Anything, I will accept any situation in which this movie does not darken the world with its existence. 

Collateral Beauty always looked like a laughably bad movie, but it is much more than that. It’s an offensive disaster. The way it trivializes grief, the way it fails to acknowledge the irresponsible decisions made by its main characters, it’s hard not to see this as the first movie of the Trump era. Some will think it’s cute. Those who can relate to it, however, will be horrified. It should come with a trigger warning.

Trailers sold Collateral Beauty as a movie in which a grieving father is confronted by the personifications of Death, Time and Love to help put him on a path toward healing. That’s not what the movie does. Instead, Collateral Beauty is a movie where three shareholders in an advertising company conspire to make Will Smith’s character look crazy in the eyes of fellow board members so they can wrestle the company away from him during his time of struggle.

They do this by hiring a private investigator to illegally steal the guy’s mail, after which they discover he wrote one (just one!) letter to the ideas of Death, Time and Love each. They use this info to come up with a plan where actors confront him as personifications of these ideas, all of which is recorded by the PI. The actors are then digitally removed from the footage so it looks like Will Smith is talking to himself.

Understand, the people doing this are the film’s main characters, not Will Smith. Except for a minor b-story, he is an object of the plot, not a subject. As such, we’re stuck with a trio of awful, deceitful people who never get punished for their actions because we’re supposed to like them. In fact, for the crime of gaslighting and ruining the credibility of a father clearly suffering from the death of his six-year-old daughter, they gain financially and even learn bullshit life lessons from their actors. They stalk, harass and manipulate this guy until he gives them what they want, and that’s the narrative climax. I seldom see movies this tonally inappropriate, and I wrote a whole book about Tyler Perry.

Part of the problem is Will Smith’s performance. It’s too real. He plays his character’s sadness too well for us to not be on his side. Meanwhile, his co-stars (Michael Peña, Kate Winslet and Edward Norton) play at a sitcom level. The insanity would at least be of a piece if Will Smith’s character were played by someone like Kevin James.

Then again, this character isn’t exactly on the up and up, either. In this movie’s fucked up universe, grief makes you spend a week setting up intricate domino scenes only to walk away when you tip that first one over. You spend your days sitting at a park and nights in a room with no lights, phone or internet service, just staring at a wall. You don’t speak or work, even if hundreds of jobs rely on your participation. There’s also a twist in this movie (there are actually two!) that recontextualizes everything you know about the guy, to the point where you wonder if he really is insane after all. The movie throws it in there to be emotionally manipulative, but in racing toward that goal writer Allen Loeb throws the character’s integrity under the bus. It’s like badly improvised pathos, again a total Tyler Perry move.

I kind of call into question the emotional intelligence of every actor in this film. Helen Mirren’s not hungry. And I’m pretty sure she can read. How she or anyone else involved could find this script morally okay eludes me. I don't get it.

If this were the only movie in existence, we would be forced to find some bright spots. As stated above, Will Smith is very good in it. Helen Mirren’s character has some funny flashes of dramatic selfishness. Dominos are cool.

But there are so many other movies. Even in a grouping of 2016 films about grief, to go from Manchester by the Sea to this is punishing. So don’t do it. Just see Manchester instead. See anything instead. This is that rare film which should be avoided on moral grounds. If it finds success, the bad guys win both on and off screen.

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