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Movie Review: #CollateralBeauty

The wholly unethical Collateral Beauty is a manipulative affront to common decency.

WARNING: Massive Spoilers Ahead
Review by Matt Cummings

If you've ever lost a child or experienced the tragic death of someone, Collateral Beauty is supposed to offer a cathartic means for release and reflection. Unfortunately, it also tries to play with our emotions while manipulating its lead through wholly unethical means, only to learn that angels like money too. And for that ultimate of movie sins, it earns my pick as one of the worst movies of the year.

Having endured the death of his 7 year old daughter due to brain cancer, Howard (Will Smith) is now a broken man. His ad agency, one of the most respected in New York, is on the brink of being sold, while Howard writes angry letters to Death, Time, and Love. He mails them, hops on his bike, and then proceeds to his job, only to build complex domino structures while his partners (Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, and Edward Norton) helplessly look on. They are not only worried about Howard himself, but that his insistence on not selling the company will deny all of his employees a chance to keep their jobs. It's here that Howard's "friends" conspire to take the company away from him by hiring actors (Helen Mirren, Jacob Lattimore, Keira Knightley) to play the roles which Howard has begun his hateful correspondence. The plan goes off without a hitch, leading Howard to attend grief sessions chaired by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a fellow survivor. The results will reveal the true nature of loss, reuniting some while forcing others to consider their own mortality.

Collateral Beauty is an unfathomably terrible movie. Forget about all the undeveloped and unnecessary subplots, like Winslet's too-late biological clock, Pena's recurring and now terminal disease, and Norton's estranged daughter who harbors deep resentment at his infidelity. It's manipulative and deceptive in the extreme. It pits Howard's unimaginable loss against the needs of his so-called friends as they seek to sell his share of the company just so they can make a buck (and perhaps sleep better knowing their employees can stick around). And here's how they do it: they hire a nice old lady who's also a PI to videotape the meetings with Death, Love, and Time, then CGI them out to make Howard look like he's talking to himself. Yep, that's it. Howard's friends are terrible people, displaying their true colors as immensely unlikable people.

And then there's the way Beauty handles Pena's terminal illness. He's barely given any screen time which translates into too few moments for us to process his mortality with him. His presence is more for weighing on the sadness without giving it the emotional heft that it needs. Instead, he tells Death that his wife was "prepared for it" and that she knew all along. And that's it for him: no funeral, no chance for his friends to react. And no moment for the Three Horseman (who end up really being angels) to consider granting him a miracle. Nope, it is time's inevitable march forward, apparently waiting for no man. It's a hollow series of scenes, because Smith's loss is given much more time by Writer Allan Loeb. Why he felt the need to heap on the misery is beyond me, because it cheapens both struggles.

All Director David Frankel wants to do is to make his actors look gorgeous as they ball through the all-glamour-no-substance script. Harris is an up-and-comer - from the Bond films to Moonlight - and perhaps she's the best thing about Collateral Beauty, playing Howard's wife and keeping the secret until a pivotal moment in the third act. That moment comes off as more of a plot device than a powerful moment of reunification. Smith does his best to keep this ship moving forward, managing to play grieving father with a level of intensity that I've not seen from him. But the film treats his character with such disdain, like he's a pawn to be moved out of the way so the enemy can charge towards the victory tape. We're meant to love this guy for his loss, but it comes out feeling like we need a shower because everyone else is so bad. Beauty has Oscar Bait written all over it, and its overt efforts to gain attention through such immoral means is disgusting.

Mirren is always star quality, but the usually-independent Norton is out of place, as is Winslet. Neither offer any heft to their roles, and Loeb's character choices throughout might make you wish you had been told a more realistic version of this film than the schmaltz-y trailers. Knightley's team of angels never give us any idea of their powers until the hastily-constructed ending, where they actually accept cash from the partners after the job is completed. There's no donation and no givebacks, which leads me to wonder if angels do in fact need cash. Then I realize I don't care, because this movie is immorally bad.

Collateral Beauty is one of those films that probably suffered multiple script re-writes and some very questionable editing, but its core plot problems remain. Like a field that's been sowed with salt, the creative team seemed to forget about actually treating these characters with care, which will leave audiences to potentially hate their experience once the tears dry up and they really think about what they saw. Collateral Beauty does nothing to strengthen our nation's worry that things are about to change for the (much) worse, portraying people who will screw their friend over just to sell their company. It's a nasty and terrible assumption, all surrounded by pretty faces and Christmas decorations. Well played. Now I need a shower.

Collateral Beauty is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language and has a runtime of 97 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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