Insultingly Melodramatic Beauty a Facile Waste of Time
Still reeling from the death of his six-year-old daughter two years ago, formerly outgoing advertising executive Howard (Will Smith) has returned to work a shell of a man. His business partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña), are worried about their friend’s mental wellbeing. But they are even more concerned about the declining health of their agency, and unless Howard is willing to sell his ownership stake it’s likely they, and more importantly their entire staff, will be out on the streets with nothing to show for it.
Thanks to a colorfully iniquitous private investigator (Ann Dowd), the trio discovers Howard has been writing clandestine letters to Death, Time and Love, dropping them in the mail as if he expects a response. After a chance encounter with a beautiful young actress, Amy (Keira Knightley), Whit hits upon an idea. Why not hire people to pretend to be the three deities in order to help Howard process his grief? While initially reticent, Claire and Simon sign onto the plan, enlisting Amy and her two theatre buddies Brigitte (Helen Mirren) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to impersonate Love, Death and Time, hoping their insertion into their friend’s life might help him turn the corner.
Collateral Beauty isn’t subtle. Allan Loeb’s (Things We Lost in the Fire, 21) script is as manipulative and as reliant upon melodramatic coincidences as that synopsis makes things sound like they might be, the resulting film almost insulting in regards to the depths it is willing to go to in order to draw tears out of the eye sockets. All of the twists are telegraphed from a mile away, and the climactic revelations aren’t even moderately surprising, a couple of them so on-the-nose I almost choked on my popcorn at the way they are brusquely revealed.
Thankfully, director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs) has somehow managed to assemble one heck of a killer cast to help bring all of this nonsense to life, each throwing themselves into this sophomoric mess of emotional pabulum with more intensity and personality than the actual motion picture deserves. Additionally, there are a small handful of winning moments hinting at the Capra-esque potential lurking at the center of things, most revolving around Norton’s conversations with Knightley as well as his character’s brief interactions with his angry, disillusioned adolescent daughter Allison (Kylie Rogers). Additionally, there is a bona fide terrific performance turned in by soon-to-be-an-Oscar-nominee Naomi Harris (Moonlight) as a grief counselor who becomes obsessed with Howard’s case, and even if Loeb’s script throws her character under a slab of treacle-fortified concrete the spectacularly talented actress manages to authentically tug at the heartstrings all the same.
I get what the screenwriter is attempting to do. He’s channeling themes and ideas familiar to anyone who has ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life or any of the numerous versions of A Christmas Carol. Loeb’s going for a type of magic realism that lives comfortably inside a recognizable world, the twinkly holiday lights of New York City helping hint at the promise for human understanding, resilience, forgiveness and togetherness that lurks at the heart of the scenario he has concocted.
But it doesn’t work. Not only are the coincidences tying everyone together tiresome, the tropes that are trotted out as if they are something imaginative and unique are just plain dumb. There is no nuance to these constructions, emergencies, health problems, marital discords and motherly ticking clocks all tossed in willy-nilly more because they’re needed to up the ante than because they help give the drama additional life. The audience isn’t treated with respect, and as such I lost patience with the movie long before the climactic reveals came to pass.
This could end up being one of those cases where general audiences and critics fail to see eye-to-eye, the preview crowd I watched this film with clearly responding to the story far more positively than I sadly was. Even so, the problems with the script and its subsequent execution are readily apparent throughout, and as strong as the acting might be that wasn’t enough to warrant enduring this facile disaster any longer than was necessary. Collateral Beauty is a waste of time, and I just don’t see myself reassessing that verdict anytime soon.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)