Opening 19 Jan 2017
I might be the only critic on the planet who found likeable elements in Collateral Beauty. Despite its largely shallow handling of how grief can completely undo a person, I found potential in this film.
It starts with Howard (Smith), a New York ad man at the top of his creative game. Immediately fast-forward three years, and Howard is distraught over the death of his young daughter. He’s checked out emotionally and his agency is in danger of folding. Howard’s partners, Whit (Norton), Claire (Winslet), and Simon (Peña), want to sell the company to secure their financial futures, but can’t do so without Howard’s vote. When they discover that he’s written angry letters to Love, Time, and Death, they hatch a creepy plan to hire a trio of actors (played by Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) to appear to Howard as these abstract concepts. The idea is that they’ll convince Howard he’s hallucinating – as Mirren’s character puts it, they’ll gaslight him. And then they’ll film him talking to these “abstractions,” digitally remove the actual people, and create videos in which it looks like crazy Howard is talking to himself, all to convince the company’s board to override his voting power.
Yikes. Not to mention a sub-plot about a support group for grieving parents and Howard’s interactions with the group’s leader, Madeleine (Naomie Harris), which lead to a “reveal” that is anything but revelatory. If I stopped here, it would seem this movie merits one star. It’s a surface-y, treacly Hollywood affair, stuffed full of A-list actors, on top of which – due to some unfathomable marketing decision – it’s been packaged as a feel-good Christmassy movie.
So why give Collateral Beauty three stars? Because it strikes me as a play that’s been unnecessarily blown-up into a movie. While I watched it, I thought about acting, both in the literal sense of “Wow! An excellent actress like Helen Mirren can make an insensitive role seem poignant,” and in the sense of how we “act” in our daily lives, the roles we play as women, men, parents, partners, etc. With a stripped-down script and an injection of legitimate emotion, it could have been a notable quirky off-Broadway production.
I’m sure this goes against all branches of psychology and counseling, but there’s something interesting in the (essentially cruel) idea of a grieving man finally confronting his pain because he thinks he’s speaking to Death, Love, and Time. These scenes are hammy, particularly because Smith plays Howard’s annihilating grief with anything but subtlety, but they contain moments of insight into the power of sorrow. Although everything is too easily resolved, this unbelievable story is strengthened by a talented and diverse cast and is captivating in places. I left feeling as manipulated as Howard, but also moved. (Diana Schnelle)