For a film that boasts an absolute smorgasbord of Hollywood A-listers (and really rather talented ones at that), Collateral Beauty leaves a lot to be desired.
When advertising exec Howard (Smith) falls into depression following the loss of his young daughter, he begins to write letters to Love, Time and Death. When his work colleagues (and supposed “friends”, portrayed by Norton, Winslet and Peña) get wind of this through the private detective they hire to follow Howard in his day-to-day life, they up and decide to hire three actors to confront Howard as the physical embodiments of Love, Time and Death, therefore having them reply verbally to Howard’s letters. It’s an attempt to help Howard as well as themselves, as Howard’s depression causes erratic behaviour that threatens their company.
On the outside (i.e. if you watched the trailer) you’d be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a heart-warming, life-affirming movie, particularly if you are someone who has had to deal with loss. Personally I felt the complete opposite; I’d even say I’d lost a little bit of faith in humanity.
Some spoilers ahead…
When Howard’s colleagues decide to hire actors in a bid to basically make him look crazy (by having him talk to the actors in public places so they can record the interactions, edit the footage and make him look as though he’s talking to himself), I felt betrayed on his behalf. Whatever happened to confronting someone about their issues? Everyone experiences and deals with grief differently and should take as much time as they need to come back to life, shall we say. Responsibilities, however, cannot be avoided forever, and if Howard’s colleagues truly cared about him, they ought to have confronted him and guided him to therapy. And, if it really came down to it, they should have given him ultimatums pertaining to his job – where were human resources in all of this!? Maybe it sounds a little harsh, but the real world is harsh, particularly in a world of executives such as Howard’s, I would imagine. This surely would have been the kinder route, not hiring actors to make him appear insane and eventually sign the company over to prevent it from going under. And to then have him thank them for everything!? If I were him I would be PISSED that they would stoop so low.
We then have the other side of the story – each of Norton’s, Winslet’s and Peña’s characters end up having some relation to Love (Knightley), Time (Mirren) and Death (Latimore). It felt like the writers were saying, ‘You know what, Howard’s story isn’t enough, let’s add these other elements to further emphasise what this movie is about’. It felt like such a cop out. It made it difficult to sympathise, again, with any of their personal stories as I did not enjoy their actions towards Howard. You would have thought don’t be an asshole to your friend is a fairly straight-forward rule. Apparently not.
Howard’s story could have been so much more if Love, Time and Death were entities that really were only visible to Howard (even if that meant he genuinely had gone a bit crazy). He could have realised in his own way that he had not been forsaken by Love, betrayed by Time or purposely hurt by Death. I would rather have seen more of Howard’s inner turmoil and struggle than Winslet’s character’s fight with her own ethics over the situation, or Mirren’s strange turn as some boho-thesp that is so many billions of miles away from the kind of role and level of performance we normally come to expect of our national treasure.
And the so-called ‘twist’ of the story – the twist itself is just twisted. No one in reality would do that.
…end of spoilers.
I’ve realised this review has become more akin to a rant, so let’s try something positive. For me the only true saving grace of this film is Smith’s performance. Once again he has proven why he is one of the highest paid actors in the world. If the script had been better his performance would have been award-worthy (why did he, or any of the other actors we have come to respect, opt in to this film!?). The only time I felt moved in any way was when it came to Howard being unable to discuss his daughter. I could imagine Smith perhaps imagining what it would be like to lose one of his own children in order to get the most from his performance; he did his best with what he was given.
If I could sum up Collateral Beauty in a single word, it would likely be ‘confusing’. What does “collateral beauty” even mean!? Once you come out the other side of grief, if you ever do, you’ll start to notice the beauty of the world? No. The beauty of the world has always been there and you have likely noticed it many times. You may temporarily notice it a bit more after the initial grieving period, but it has always been there and will continue to be long after you’ve learnt to live with your grief. It may never be the same beauty again; it may appear differently as perspectives change and you’ll be learning to live with the grief you’ve experienced – it doesn’t necessarily mean anything is any more or any less beautiful than it was previously.
Ultimately this film doesn’t seem to know if it’s trying to portray the reality of loss or create a fairytale around it. I felt it was making a joke out of a man’s grief. But, I get it. It’s an attempt to be positive and to shine a light at the end of a very dark corridor, something that is sorely needed by those who are grieving. It’s a shame this film does not provide that comfort.