Every so often there comes a movie so tasteless, so nakedly pandering, so bodaciously ill conceived that you’ve got to see it to believe it. This year, that movie is Collateral Beauty. Will Smith plays Howard, an advertising exec who hasn’t been able to pull his life together since his six-year-old daughter died from a rare ailment a few years back. His business partners—played by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña—are worried: The company is running aground, and they have failed in getting Howard, whose grief is so intense he can barely function, to sign a crucial deal that will save it. So they band together and hatch a brilliant scheme: Why not hire actors to play Love, Death and Time, and send them ’round to Howard’s house, A Christmas Carol-style, to give him a good talking-to? Their hope is that Howard will either recover enough from his emotional malaise to sign the papers, or he’ll look so crazy that they’ll be able to legally wrest the company’s control from him. With friends like these…
The three recruit a trio of actors from a struggling local company: Keira Knightley is feisty, temperamental Love. Jacob Latimore is Time, a fast-talking dealmaker on a skateboard. And Helen Mirren shows up, in a fetching blue coat, as Death. (You can be forgiven for hoping the Grim Reaperess looks this good when she shows up for you.) Each pays Howard a visit. Understandably, he can hardly believe what’s happening. Meanwhile, his colleagues have the meetings recorded and then work advertising-special-effects magic to erase the actors, so it appears that Howard is talking to himself. With friends like these…
Everybody—the business partners, the actors, grief-benumbed Howard—will learn a life lesson here, because no character ever gets out of a movie like this one without it. But Howard’s business partners never really reckon with what an underhanded thing they’ve done to him: Their lessons come in the form of making peace with not having a child, or facing the truth of a fatal illness, or repairing a fractured family relationship. It’s hard to feel anything for any of them.
Pinpointing one fatal flaw in Collateral Beauty is impossible—the transgressions pile up like a trash heap of Christmas miracles. The director is David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me), working from a script by Alan Loeb (21, Just Go with It), and you almost can’t blame them for trying: The basic concept is so loopy it just might have worked, had it been approached with a drier sense of humor. But Smith—who, through much of his career, has proved to be an effortlessly likable and often affecting performer—plays the act of grieving like a child miming the trajectory of a garden snail in a school play. And you may be wondering what, exactly, the movie’s title means. Even though one character or another declaims the phrase at least four times—or is it fourteen?—I still have no idea. In this instance, does collateral mean extra stuff floating around? Or something pledged as security for repayment of a debt? Either way, it’s enough to make you wonder what you ever did in life to deserve such a movie.
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