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Collateral Beauty

December 16, 2016
Collateral Beauty

There’s a balancing act involved in reviewing a movie like Collateral Beauty. You have to wait long enough for the initial revulsion to pass, so that you can discuss it with a modicum of calm, but not so long that the instinct to repress trauma sets in.

Collateral Beauty is a howlingly bad movie. A Christmas Carol ripoff filtered through Reign Over Me, but with none of the resonance of September 11 as ballast, it’s a preachy weepy with pretensions of depth, entirely more impressed with its own construction than it has any right to be.

In place of Scrooge, we have Howard Inlet (Will Smith), which is ironic because he refuses to let anyone in. Get it!? He’s no miser, but he’s a wreck two years after the loss of his six-year-old daughter. The ad agency he started with partner Whit Yardsham (Ed Norton) is foundering under his inattention, and they can’t even negotiate the buyout that lieutenant Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and legal counsel Simon Scott (Michael Peña) advise, since Howard holds the majority interest and he won’t talk to anyone.

Enlisting the aid of the same private investigator who exposed his own marital infidelities (Ann Dowd), Whit finds out that Howard has been writing letters to the three abstract concepts that formed the core of his creative strategy: Love, Time, and Death. Which, of course, are the stand-ins for the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Right on cue, he stumbles on the “Hegel Theater Company” — recalling the Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis dialectic as another triad — whose three struggling members (Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, and Helen Mirren) agree to take on the roles of these three ideals in an effort to bring Howard back to something approaching his senses.

But of course each of the three advisors has their own Key Issue to deal with. As Whit prepares the “Love” actress, he must repair his broken relationship with his daughter. Claire preps “Time”, and meanwhile she browses artificial insemination brochures and wonders if she’s waited too long to start a family on her own. Simon works with “Death”, and reveals that his cancer has relapsed and metastasized.

And Howard has his own side narrative, finally approaching and beginning to join a support group for bereaved parents. The group leader, Madeline (Naomie Harris), reaches out and tries to support this man who, even aside from the hallucinations he thinks he’s experiencing, clearly needs help from an actual clinical psychologist.

Everything on screen is absolutely, stunningly obvious even before the script starts beating you in the face with it. It saves two major “twists” for the last five minutes, and each one is obvious within the first thirty. In fact, you may well be able to guess both of them right now. And they’re both revealed too late to have any narrative effect on the rest of the movie, so they only serve writer Allan Loeb and director David Frankel’s self-satisfied egos to elicit gasps from the few in the audience who haven’t been paying attention.

The script is so besotted with its own cleverness that it never engages with the consequences of its own actions. Most egregiously, when the partners decide to videotape interactions between Howard and the actors, then digitally erase the actors from the footage to get doctored evidence to use against him in a competency hearing, nobody seems to bring up how flagrantly illegal the idea is, let alone literally impossible given the angles the footage is captured from.

It’s stupid and lazy work, ladled over with smarm and treacle. And, worst of all, it’s convinced that it’s not only smart and insightful, but Oscar-bait.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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