[This review will also appear at Film Festival Today, and when it does, I will link to that review.]
Collateral Beauty (David Frankel, 2016)
Let us be clear about one thing: Collateral Beauty is utterly ridiculous. Overstuffed with big-name actors – from Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) to Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) to Naomie Harris (Moonlight) to Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) to Michael Peña (Ant-Man) to Edward Norton (Birdman) to headliner Will Smith (Concussion) – the film offers a muddled mishmash of mystical mumbo-jumbo about life and death that is not without its occasional pleasures, yet collapses under the weight of its simultaneously maudlin and fantastical premise. Smith plays Howard, an apparent titan of the advertising world whom we meet in the opening scene, when Norton’s Whit introduces him, as his partner, at a company meeting. All smiles and charismatic bluster (Smith’s movie-star stock-in-trade), Howard deconstructs his business philosophy as using the concepts of “Love,” “Time” and “Death” to manipulate the general public to respond to the products he sells. An abrupt cut later – identified in a subsequent title card as three years after the first scene – and Howard is now older, grayer and, most notably, depressed, doing nothing but building elaborate domino structures in his office, edifices which he promptly knocks down. What happened?
That is for you to discover if you choose to see the film (which I cannot recommend). Whatever the reason, Howard’s near-catatonic state poses a problem for his co-workers, who either need him to rejoin the living or divest himself of his shares in the company so they can move on without him. To achieve the second goal, Whit hatches a plan to hire three out-of-work actors – played by Mirren, Knightley and Jacob Lattimore (The Maze Runner) – to portray the three aforementioned abstract subjects of the movie’s opening speech, to whom Howard, we discover, has been writing letters. If Whit and company can gather evidence of Howard’s mental incompetence, perhaps they can force divestiture. Cruel, but effective, and the movie goes to great lengths to show that they, for a while, have tried other methods before resorting to this.
Things don’t quite work out as planned, and I will give screenwriter Allan Loeb (The Switch) some credit for surprising me with a few details, especially towards the end. But nothing makes up for the treacle, not even Norton’s enjoyably sly turn as a playboy past his prime. Director David Frankel (Marley & Me), fortunately, is not afraid of mining even the most tragic situations for their inherent humor, which does help leaven the mawkish tone, but it’s not enough. At the end of the day, nothing holds together, and whatever small joys exist here and there do not a cinematic raison d’être make. Mirren is fun, Harris is moving, and both Smith and Peña get a few solid dramatic moments, but there is very little “collateral beauty” beyond that in this misbegotten mess of a movie.