It’s strange how Collateral Beauty is almost a novel idea for a film. Somehow packing a bunch of talented actors into a film set during the December holiday season that isn’t a comedy has become a rare commodity. The film is a straight drama that holds its sincerity close to its heart, even if that means embracing its ridiculous concept. However, that ridiculous concept also means the film is an original. If only the story managed to place more meaning in its title phrase, rather than keeping this cast so busy with subplots. Collateral Beauty attempts to do the job of letting good actors act, they just have to be involved in this plot about grief and the lengths friends to go to in an effort to help.
Well “help” is actually a bit of a misleading term. The story involves a New York ad exec, Howard (Will Smith), who is suffering from the loss of his daughter and withdraws himself from life as a result. This isn’t good for his company and his partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Clair (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena). Mild spoilers for the film’s first act, but their solution: hire actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore) to pose as Death, Love and Time and talk to Howard. These aspects of the universe are what Howard has been writing letters to and his partners/friends decide they can film these interactions with the actors and present a case that Howard is not fit to be a part of his own company.
Now that actually sounds pretty horrible and if one were to reverse some aspects and add a different score, one could easily see this as a psychological horror film (I’ll await the YouTube trailer editors to come up with something on that). However, Allan Loeb’s script justifies these actions by establishing that the company is suffering from Howard’s behavior. Instead of helping the ad agency grow, he spends his days putting together elaborate domino setups (that he won’t see fall down completely, which is madness) and furiously biking against traffic to make sure we understand his pain.
There are good and bad things about seeing a story like this in a movie and director David Frankel tries to justify the experience. He may be making the mainstream version of an indie drama that would likely take less traditional routes to tell the same story, but Frankel does get the benefit of having a cast this good. The level of sentiment and earnestness means the movie is inherently schmaltzy and repeating the phrase “collateral beauty” in a way that suggests it means much more than the implication that it’s some sort of perfume tagline doesn’t help. However, credit goes to the film for going all out in scenes that require true emotion.
Smith leads this cast, although my reaction to him is sort of mixed here. I am happy to champion his choices when it comes to balancing his blockbuster films with more low-key dramas, but this part may not have been the best fit. There is one monologue he delivers to Mirren that is quite affecting, but the way he forces himself to play down his natural charisma doesn’t work in the same way it has with some of his better performances (I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happiness or even Hancock). Perhaps he would have been better suited in Norton’s part. It would mean Smith would have to play second-fiddle, but the attitude he generally has could play well to what we see with Norton.
Speaking of, the rest of the cast do what they can and there are some standouts. Mirren and Pena, in particular, provide the film’s best work. The actor characters are each paired up with one of the partners and the Mirren/Pena combo is easily the best. Norton sadly has to deal with the most exposition and an awkward sorta romantic angle with Knightley’s character. Winslet does the best she can, but her character’s subplot involves staring at potential sperm donors on a computer screen and verbally sparring with Latimore. The dialogue only registers because these two are competent performers.
Given the film’s premise, one would think a lot of time goes to this “Love, Time and Death” concept, but it really doesn’t. There is a lot more talk about taking this action than actually seeing it. At 96 minutes, it feels like there could have been more here that was excised, but regardless, there is another element that actually fills a lot of screen time. That would be Howard’s relationship with a grief counselor played by Naomie Harris. It is one of the many subplots/pairings in the film and one of the more effective ones.
Engagement with this film seems to be coming down to the effectiveness of the story. There is not much to the direction, beyond seeing the most overly dramatic scenes involving dominos since V for Vendetta, and as a New York movie, it feels pretty standard. The actors are mostly game to pick up the film in places where the script feels undercooked beyond its genuineness. That may be enough for some audiences looking to see a feel-good drama and that is completely fair. Collateral Beauty is original in its own silly sort of way, I just wish I got more than some surface-level reactions to an earnest story.