Passion projects have a troubled history in Hollywood. At their best, they can be risky projects with not enough commercial appeal to get made without the push from one or two big name backers. At their worst, they are deeply flawed works whose existence can only be attributed to somebody who doesn’t take kindly to criticism. Allan Loeb (The Switch, Just Go With It) wrote the script on spec and seems to have willed the movie into existence based exclusively on his Hollywood connections. It is at his feet, moreso than even director David Frankel (Marley & Me), that full blame must be laid, because this movie is such a trainwreck of epic proportions.
Nobody I know talks about marketing the way Howard (Will Smith) does in the opening of Collateral Beauty. As president of a successful New York advertising agency, Howard is giving a company-wide pep talk about how they’re not here just to sell things, but they’re here to make connections with people. To illustrate his connection with humanity, he talks about how everybody is motivated by three abstractions – we want Love, we fear Death, and we never have enough Time – laying out the central thesis for the movie. A few years later, as the credits are still rolling, Howard is years older with graying hair and a permanent frown as he finishes up an elaborate domino structure around his office…just so he can start the chain reaction to knock it down and walk away as everything crumbles around him. He doesn’t create anything pretty with their aftermath, just gigantic messy piles of dominoes…an unintended metaphor for the hilariously tragic mess that is Collateral Beauty.
At the beginning, Howard exudes enough charm that he can plausibly be the beating heart of the company, and as he withers away into depression so does the company. Over the past three years, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) have watched the company suffer as the clients abandon ship while Howard flounders in his emotional depression after his daughter dies of cancer.
Whit, Claire, and Simon, who only own 40% of the company’s stock, have an opportunity to “save” the company by selling it to OmniCorp. But Howard won’t sell because he refuses to talk to anybody and the company may be his last grasp on reality. In order to sell the company, they have to expose Howard as so mentally incompetent he can’t make business decisions. Apparently time lapse videos of Howard spending days making domino structures only to knock them down wouldn’t be solid enough evidence because then there wouldn’t be a movie. If you thought this is a disturbing set up, have no fear…they’re doing it to save the company and its employees, whom OmniCorp has promised to keep after the purchase (with no talk about how those employees normally see pay cuts and a slashing of benefits as OmniCorps raids their pension plans before dissolving the company and leaving the employees broke in the middle of nowhere).
What’s the plan to expose Howard? First they hire a private detective who gives them therapeutic letters that Howard has written to Love, Death and Time. Using these letters as a starting off point, they hire three local actors to visit Howard as Love (Keira Knightley), Death (Helen Mirren) and Time (Jacob Latimore) and have conversations as human manifestations of abstract concepts to make Howard think he’s losing his grip on reality. Then, the private detective is going to film these conversations and digitally remove the actors from the videos to have evidence that Howard is crazy. To sum up the A-plot, three executives gaslight their boss, who lost his daughter and his wife, just so they can sell the company and make a big payday.
Just in case that wasn’t complicated enough, Loeb adds in a litany of underdeveloped but sentimental B-Plots:
- Whit is teamed up with Love because he cheated on his ex-wife. Now, his daughter is pissed off at him because Whit’s wife has been bad mouthing him at home.
- Simon is teamed up with Death because he is now movie sick, coughing up blood in toilets and is going to die within the next couple weeks but hasn’t told anybody
- Claire is teamed up with Time because she’s an old spinster whose biological clock has been ticking so hard that she’s looking to get artificially inseminated
Do any of those make you cry? Are you crying yet? One of these plots have to make you cry! YOU WILL CRY BY THE END OF THIS MOVIE! This movie is permanently intent on being a three-hanky weepie, it throws in every emotionally heart-string pulling plot you can imagine. But, it’s only 97 minutes, and none of these plots are any more developed than the one sentence line you see above, and their obvious solutions.
But, wait, there’s more! After the visits from Love, Death and Time, Howard starts thinking he may actually be losing his mind. He starts attending a group therapy session for people who have lost their children run by Madeline (Naomie Harris), who also lost her daughter to Cancer. He comes into group especially broken, he can’t even say his daughter’s name, and Madeline spends special time trying to solve his grief.
The big topic on everybody’s mind is, “what the hell is Collateral Beauty?” It’s a ridiculously nonsensical phrase never uttered by any man woman or child for fear of sounding maudlin or synergistic. Madeline actually gets the explanation, saying that Collateral Beauty is the resulting connectedness to the world that somebody feels after they’ve been through a major tragedy. They see everything as beautiful, a collateral effect of the grief they’ve suffered.
I’ve spend 950 words giving a book report on this ridiculous shit because…holy fuck. How the hell do you unwind this goddamned movie in a brief logline? There is so much going on, nothing ever really develops beyond their basic concept. David Frankel has little idea of what to do with this material beyond a heightened Hallmark Christmas Movie concept. To give you an idea of how bored Frankel is, he sets up an elaborate single take when Howard sends the letters to Love Death and Time. Beginning at his doorstep, Howard goes across the street to mail the letters in the blue box across the street, when the private investigator rides up behind him in a rickshaw to take a photo of the mailbox. Frankel films all this with a swooping camera similar to the opening scene of La La Land, exposing the elaborate ballet of mailing a couple of letters. Ridiculously, this is the only time he uses this technique!
You guys, watching this movie in theaters is essential if you have any sense of cognitive disconnect. By the end of this morally depraved piece of emotional manipulation, you’ll either be a pile of tears or a heap of laughter. Even as I was laughing at the brass balls of the movie, there were people who were crying and blowing their nose in the rows behind me. At the emotional climax of the movie, where a deeply corrupt twist finally comes to light, there were people so excited they couldn’t help but babble incoherently at the screen. I’m not sure if they were all “fuck this shit” or “this is so sad,” but the audience reaction was key to my experience.
This morning, I said that Collateral Beauty was a victim to false advertising because it didn’t tell the story of Love, Time and Death being hired actors meant to harass a depressed executive. I lied. The advertising does pull a bait-and-switch with the movie, but it also is actually the plot of the movie. The final scene of Collateral Beauty exposes the actors playing Love, Time, and Death to actually be Love, Time and Death who evaporate into thin air once they solved all of the problems in the movie (for the low price of $60k). These three abstractions manipulated the three executives so they could fix everybody. So, when the trailer creates a story about how Love, Time and Death are solving everybody’s problem…it’s actually not lying to you. It just takes 90 minutes for that realization to hit. This might be one of the greatest cinematic pranks this year.