Directed by David Frankel
Written by Allen Loeb
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly, Jacob Latimore, Naomi Harris and Ann Dowd
Runtime: 97 minutes
Movie trailers are designed to do one thing: sell a movie and make it look like it’s worth seeing. These days, so much is put into the trailers, you almost feel like you don’t even need to see the movie, and often times you are correct. Sometimes, though, the trailers cut around certain things and make the movie look completely different than what it is. Such is the case with the ridiculously ham-fisted Collateral Beauty.
The trailer would have you believe that Howard (Will Smith), in the anguish of losing his daughter, writes three angry letters: one to Death, one to Time, and one to Love and they manifest themselves (as Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore and Keira Knightly respectively) and try to help him get through his grief and functional again. Sounds like a heartwarming story just in time for the holidays, no? Well, too bad. Howard does indeed write said letters to said abstractions, but it’s a private investigator (Ann Dowd) who discovers them and gives them to Whit (Edward Norton), Howard’s partner in the ad agency, Claire (Kate Winslet), who is…an assistant? an executive? Something, anyway in the firm and Simon (Michael Pina), who is the firm’s lawyer. See, since Howard has been consumed by guilt over two years, his relationships with the firm’s clients have suffered and a major client is about to dump them. Whit has negotiated a generous sale of the company, but Howard has 60% of the stock and refuses to even discuss selling, despite the company failing. Whit follows an actress auditioning for a commercial after she leaves abruptly (after coming up with a better slogan than he had) and finds three actors rehearsing a play that needs money to open. He, Clair and Simon hire them to play Death, Time and Love for Howard. No, not to help him heal, but to film him talking to them, edit them out and prove he’s not of sound mind to have a controlling interest and sell the company out from under him. Great friends.
The script, written by Alan Loeb (who has previously foisted 21, The Switch, the Adam Sandler picture Just Go With It, The Dilemma, Rock of Ages and Here Comes the Boom upon us), is trying to be too clever by half, lining up twists and reveals that are telegraphed long before they happen and are so dumb that he would have been better off without any of them. There is very little character development, and when they do develop, it happens spontaneously and none of it is earned. The movie jerks you around, making you certain you know something, then casts some doubt on what you’d figured out then confirms it seconds later. There is no subtlety or nuance anywhere in the screenplay. All of it is just tricks and tropes designed to get an audience to cry because they should, not because there’s any real attachment to any of the characters. The only things you feel are bad for Howard because his friends are subjecting him to this after his tragedy, and annoyance at the attempted obfuscation of details that are clear until they’re mildly opaque then they clear right back up again. Loeb goes for manipulation instead of sincerity, formula over character and it all ends up coming to nothing.
Director David Frankel, a moderately not-incompetent director who previously directed The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, takes the inelegance of the screenplay and amps it up. We know he can elicit tears on subject alone, given his work on Marley & Me, and anything that is pseudo-felt is because of Frankel’s hand. Not through artful direction, though, because this film is populated by so many standard, run of the mill shots that he could have easily just cut them in from almost any film shot in New York in the last decade. The film looks like it should have appeared on The Hallmark Channel during Christmas week instead of being released into theaters. He just kind of sits back and lazily sets up standard, uninspired shots with flat looks and no emotional impact.
It’s the stellar cast that does all of the heavy lifting in the film. Smith gives a performance that is wasted on this piece of garbage. He works with Loeb’s screenplay as best he can and really crafts a broken man who, with outside assistance, eventually tries to put himself back together. Everyone else does serviceable work, with Mirren being the only one who actually seems to have enjoyed making the picture. One could say that this is ‘Oscar Bait’, but only the cynical truly believe that’s really a thing. Actors don’t take projects to win awards, they take them because they believe in the work. That or they desperately need the money. Everybody has to eat.
Collateral Beauty is a film that at once is trying to teach a message while simultaneously working very hard to undermine itself. Coming from a bad script that feels like it was spitballed out from an interesting concept into a contrived, uninspiring mess, likely by numerous uncredited individuals and going to production with a lackluster director who managed to attract A-list talent and ended up being a wide miss. Is this because the trailer set up a false expectancy? Partly, but mostly because none of this was handled well from the start. The finished product exists, and that is about the most positive thing I can say about it.