Collateral Beauty has what appears to be one of the most astonishing casts of the year, with Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Edward Norton, Michael Pena, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet and Naomi Harris comprising the film’s ensemble. 15 academy award nominations have been won between the cast, along with 3 wins and, actors that have all played major supporting roles in some of the biggest blockbusters of all time. Also, in the form of Will Smith – arguably the movie’s focal point – they have an actor who could once claim to be the single biggest movie star on the planet. All this, and the film received barely any marketing and a release date that coincides with what is likely the single biggest film of the year.
Something isn’t right.
Really, understanding the problems with Collateral Beauty begins with the small amount of marketing that the film did receive. The trailer suggests that the plot takes the form of a sort of ersatz Christmas Carol, with the spirits of Love, Death and Time visiting Will Smith, who’s been writing letters to these concepts following the death of his young daughter. When I looked up the trailer the day before writing this review I thought that wasn’t the worst thing imaginable. It’s been some years since I’ve stopped watching TV regularly and I sort of miss the saccharine Christmas specials that manage to round up an a-list cast to deliver a ham-fisted but generally alright message.
Oh lord, how I’d much prefer to see that film.
Collateral Beauty’s main character is really Edward Norton, who co-owns an advertising company with his best friend, Will Smith. Following the death of his infant daughter, Smith plunges into a deep depression, becoming a sort of lo-fi mendicant monk who spends his days making domino formations of mandala paintings at the expense of meeting and charming clients. Norton quickly realises that without Smith’s natural charisma, the firm could easily go under, and so he concocts a plan to save the company. Spending time with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, which according to him has been “great fun”, has revealed to Norton how easy it is to convince people they live in their own little world. He decides to hire an acting troop, a troop he discovered whilst stalking a struggling actress (Knightley) who auditioned for one of his ads, to play Love, Death and Time. Specifically, these actors will harass Smith in public, which Norton and his colleagues (Winslet and Pena) will film. The actors will subsequently be digitally removed and this footage will be shown to the board to convince them of Smith’s inability to run a company.
I mean really, holy shit.
This film is not a comedy. It could work as a comedy, and indeed director David Frankel has sort of charted similar territory in The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, Collateral Beauty plays its story utterly straight and the result is not just a film that’s bad, it’s a film that’s morally reprehensible. I’ve seen some deplorable, idiotic nonsense this year, but believe me nothing quite reaches the sheer depths of Collateral Beauty. In order to try and get us to maybe sympathise with Ed Norton and his band of miscreants, the film shoe horns in subplots that exist in order to generate sympathy. Norton, for instance, wants to win back the love of his precocious daughter, who rightly hates him, Winslet is desperate to have a baby and can’t find a suitable man (yeah right), and Michael Pena is revealed to be dying of cancer, and in him the film’s treatment of cancer patients is only marginally more respectful than that of its treatment of the recently bereaved.
None of these subplots are given any room to breathe over the film’s relievingly svelte 96 minutes and they feel put in for the very naked purpose of drumming up sympathy for the tale’s sleazy protagonists. It’s handled so clumsily that the film comes across as stupid as well as being morally vile. On the subject of stupidity there are a number of twists towards the end of the film that make Smith’s previous flop Seven Pounds seem as well-plotted as the best Holmes novel. I’ve read other reviews that have complained about these twists being breathtakingly obvious, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say I didn’t see them coming, if only because I credited the film, to my peril, as surely not being that idiotic. This is stupidity that borders on infuriating, meaning Collateral Beauty can’t even be enjoyed in a “what in the name of good fuck were they thinking?” sort of way.
As a vehicle for its stars, Collateral Beauty is about as effective as a 1970s era Massey Ferguson. At one point Edward Norton assures the charisma vacuum that is Keira Knightley that he can “make kissing into the most non-sexual thing imaginable”, which is probably the only line from his character, and indeed the only in the film, I actually believed. Helen Mirren does seem have a bit of fun playing Death, especially against a Kate Winslet and Michael Pena who seem positively ashamed to be onscreen, which is honestly something I think I’m going to hold against Dame Mirren. Naomi Harris plays the only likable character in film, and quite well, but given the twist involved in the finale she ends up looking a buffoon by the end credits, though not as much as Will Smith.
One of the few nice things about Suicide Squad was that for the first time in a couple of years, audiences got to see the actor inhabiting a role that allowed him to play up that bottomless oil well of warmth and charm that made him one of the biggest draws in the world. That’s what’s great about Smith and that’s why he’s the perfect choice for roles like Muhammad Ali or Chris Gardner. Looking sad and barely speaking, is, quite simply, not where his talents lie, a fact only amplified by Collateral Beauty’s poor material (something that can be attributed to everything in this toxic cluster fuck of a film). One of the few times he does speak is at the end when he bizarrely thanks his friends for forcing him out of his business (so he can “move on”), and seeing Smith reduced to speaking this material makes him come across as pathetic as the character he’s meant to be playing.
Donal Ryan’s brilliant novel, The Thing About December, starts every chapter by noting the things that routinely happen in a particular month and at this stage “Will Smith’s Oscar-baiting film gets released” could be added without taking away a shred of the novel’s bleakness. Collateral Beauty practically begs you to conclude a review by making a quip about collateral damage, but instead I’ll finish with this: If Will Smith wants to cry when the award season rolls around he needs to really stop making rubbish like this.
Collateral Beauty is in cinemas now. View the trailer below.
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