In between doing films like Men and Black and Suicide Squad Will Smith tries to do films that allow him stretch as an actor, now sometimes this results in films like The Pursuit of Happyness but then other times we get something like Collateral Beauty, a treacly mess that wouldn’t pass muster as poor community theater.
The central character in Collateral Beauty is advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) who we first meet as he gives an inspirational speech to his staff, extolling the virtues of advertising *cough* bullshit *cough* and how “Love, Time and Death” are three abstractions that connect every single human being on Earth, “We long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death.” Then during a nice camera move we jump ahead three years and learn that his six year old daughter has died and this tragedy has left him unmoored. The loss of a child is certainly one of the worst things that could happen to a person, and normally this would put us completely on the side of the film’s protagonist, but then we see that this very successful advertising agency is in danger of losing its clients because the heart of the company is spending upwards of five days building elaborate domino set-ups.
Enter his three friends/colleagues Whit Yardshaw (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet), and Simon Scott (Michael Peña) who fear that Howard’s behavior will sink the firm, there isn’t even a domino company on their client list, and the one small ray of hope is that another company is offering to buy them out, but unfortunately Howard isn’t even interested in talking about it. This is where my sympathy began to slide as its one thing to grieve, and with losing a daughter he certainly has earned that right, but to let others suffer because of it is not cool. He refuses to even talk to his friends so we don’t learn if he has some valid reason for not selling the company, two years of moping around the office kind of illustrates he doesn’t give a shit about it, and so Howard moves into the “Damn, what a selfish asshole this guy is” territory and my sympathy for him vanished. His “friends” then decide they have to somehow prove he is incompetent so that they can have him declared mentally unfit to run the company and gain control of his voting rights. They hire a private investigator who steals letters that he has mailed (Note: These people seem really cool tampering with mail which is a federal crime) and in these letters they find out that he’s been writing letters addressed to Death, Time and Love.
Unfortunately writing to abstractions could be considered therapeutic and not crazy so when Whit runs into actress Amy (Keira Knightley), and meets her fellow thespians Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and Brigitte (Helen Mirren) he comes up with the brilliant plan to gaslight Howard. Brigitte would appear to Howard as Death, Raffi as Time and Amy as Love and once the private investigator gets video of him arguing with them, and after digitally removing them from the footage so it looks like he is yelling at thin air, they will have the “evidence” to have him removed. My question here is “Are we supposed to like anybody in this movie?” I sympathize with Whit and company for wanting to prevent the company they help build evaporate but this plan is insanely cruel and would most likely land them all in jail if discovered. What’s worse is that these actors are apparently doing this to get money to fund their avant-garde play so the danger of them later blackmailing our trio of idiots is very real…if there wasn’t more going on of course.
The film tries to make us understand the motivations of this trio of Judas Iscariots by revealing that Whit is in financial reunion after a nasty divorce and lives with his mother who suffers from dementia and his daughter hates him, Simon we learn has terminal cancer, so he needs the money from this sale to give his family financial stability when he’s gone, and then there is Claire whose biological clock is ticking. Sure Claire occasional protests to the group, that what they are doing to poor Howard is wrong, but as she never outright stops them she has no moral leg to stand on, only Simon is the least bit sympathetic but Michael Peña’s “I’m *cough* *cough* dying” is so movie of the week lame that it engenders more laughs than tears.
So we have three dubious friends trying to get rich by making another friend believe he is talking to the incarnations of Death, Time and Love so they can declare him nuts, which all seems like the grounds for a suspense-thriller, but if you saw the trailer to this film you know that was clearly not how this movie was marketed. Nowhere in that ad campaign was there any hint that Will Smith was talking to hired actors and not the incarnations of celestial beings themselves, but to discuss this further I’m going to veer into major spoiler territory.
While Claire, Simon and Whit orchestrate this nasty gaslighting business we also have Howard attending a therapy group for parents who have suffered the death of a child, the leader of the group is a beautiful and attractive black woman named Madeleine (Naomie Harris) whose six year old daughter Olivia was lost to cancer. Like 79% of couples who lose a child her marriage ended, but here we have the added bonus of her husband sending her a note wishing that, “They could be strangers once again.” Now Howard’s daughter also died at the age of six and whenever Madeleine tries to get him to tell her the name of his daughter he completely shuts down, this is all blatant set-up for the big twist reveal that Madeleine is in fact Howard’s wife and that Olivia was their daughter. I think even M. Night Shyamalan would have been embarrassed by such a lame reveal, but the twists don’t stop there as in the final scene in the movie we get a shot of Amy, Raffi and Brigitte looking down at the reunited Howard and Madeleine and as the movie then makes it clear that Madeleine cannot see them we now know that they were in fact actually incarnations of Death, Time and Love all along and that they tricked Whit and friends to employ them in “helping” Howard.
This is all utter bullshit as nothing in this film had been introduced to even hint that the actors were actually cosmic beings, and at one point Amy refuses to be involved because she believes what they are doing to Howard is horrible. Does Love really feel that way or is she just “acting” the part of the sensitive actress? The whole actors/incarnations thing is a complete mess and wouldn’t have supported a 30 minute episode of The Twilight Zone let alone a 96 minute movie. The caliber of actors on display here are so monumentally wasted that it is almost a crime against humanity, and forcing Oscar winner Helen Mirren to spout gibberish that would sound overly treacly on a Hallmark Get Well card should at the very least get you kicked out of Hollywood. Collateral Beauty is one of those films that all involved will most likely hope the paying public forgets ever existed. I certainly plan on forgetting I ever watched it.