Collateral Beauty had easily the most nauseating trailer of the year, starring a sad Will Smith on a bike writing letters to “Death, Love, and Time,” — the first of whom eventually appears to him in human form, with a boa-clad Helen Mirren as “Death” extending a hand saying “Charmed, I’m sure,” in the money clip.
I went to see this movie that was being pitched as this faux-profound, schmaltz-choked magical realist nightmare out of a misguided impulse towards journalistic due diligence. We shouldn’t judge a movie without actually seeing it, right? Well, Collateral Beauty makes a very strong case that we should, a case that we aren’t judging nearly enough.
To be fair, Helen Mirren doesn’t actually play Death (or maybe she does! but in an even weasellier, more ambiguous way!). She’s just an actress hired by Edward Norton’s character. See, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Peña play three advertising execs at Howard’s (Will Smith) advertising agency. Howard’s daughter died and he’s gone domino crazy, neglecting the agency’s accounts to spend all day constructing elaborate domino mazes. What are you doing, buddy, filming an investment ad? He’s also become some kind of bike monk who mope-pedals his way through oncoming traffic (is there anything unintentionally funnier than a movie character pedaling while trying to look super sad?) and sits alone in his apartment staring at the wall, not even answering the door when Winslet’s character shows up with Chinese food. The company’s failing, but Howard still controls a majority of the shares, and so they need to get him declared unfit so they can sell the company to Omnicorp (original) while they can still get a decent price.
So, naturally they get a private detective. And when she uncovers the fact that Howard has been writing letters to Death, Love, and Time (“the three things that connect us all,” according to the first line of the trailer) the three execs hire three actors to play these concepts (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Lattimore). The thinking being that if they can just get Howard on film conversing with these abstract concepts, then digitally erase the actors playing them so it looks like he’s talking to thin air, they can have him declared unfit and sell the company while it’s still worth something.
“You want us to gaslight him?” Mirren’s character asks them.
Well no, Dame Helen, gaslighting would involve making Howard question his reality. What you’re doing is fraud. It’s also the most needlessly convoluted fraud plot ever conceived. If you have the power to digitally erase people, and all it takes to get Howard declared crazy is some film of him talking to no one, why not just digitally erase anyone he talks to? Better yet, why not replace his barista with a CGI possum? Oh my God he just ordered a soy chai from a nocturnal marsupial, take away the company, he’s gone loco!
But of course, that simply wouldn’t allow Will Smith to scream things like “You’re just a dead tissue that won’t decompose” at the concept of time, whatever the f*ck that means. This is a movie choked with bad cola commercial slogans it thinks are Oscar drama trailer lines. Like when Edward Norton’s character tells Keira Knightley’s about holding his now-estranged daughter (he’s a workaholic!) in his arms for the first time. “It wasn’t that I felt love, it was that I felt like I had become love.”
And I am become vomit, the regurgitator of worlds.
At which point Knightley’s character responds (Collateral Beauty essentially posits actors as the angels of magical realist non-denominational corporate humanism) “You don’t need her permission to be her father!”
How profound. And what a victory for non-consensual parenting. Meanwhile, Time tells Kate Winslet’s character that “Children don’t have to come from you, sometimes they just come through you.”
It was at this point that I wrote “Levi’s poem ass movie” in my notebook.
This brand of unacknowledged Hallmark horseshit is Collateral Beauty‘s only method of communication. Tellingly, the movie opens three years earlier, two years before Howard’s daughter’s death, with Howard giving a speech to his company. “We’re not here to sell shit,” he tells them. “We’re here to connect.”
My God, is there anything worse than advertising people who have gotten so lost in their own asses that they don’t realize that their job is to sell shit? I could maybe give Collateral Beauty the benefit of the doubt that it knows this even if the Howard character doesn’t (this is the beginning of the film, after all), except that every “profound” line sounds exactly as phony as the ad guy telling his company that they’re not there to sell. It’s almost as if the target audience for this isn’t people, but #brands. Only a non-human entity could accept this much feel-good vagueness. And the screenplay was written by Allan Loeb (21, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Switch, The Dilemma, Just Go With It, Rock Of Ages, Here Comes The Boom, So Undercover starring Miley Cyrus), who I’m not entirely convinced isn’t an algorithm.
Dead kids, barren women, dementia-addled parents, workaholic dads, secret cancer patients — there isn’t a single character in Collateral Beauty who isn’t an overused stock drama crutch. (It uses cancer twice and Alzheimer’s once, for those of you keeping score at home.) And for what? Even with all these lazy stock characters the plot still can’t resolve itself without 10 holes and an ambiguous “maybe they were, maybe they weren’t” ending. Not even the title holds up to cursory examination: “Collateral Beauty.” It comes from a line a strange woman tells… a character… while that character’s child is dying: “Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty!”
Now, is that collateral beauty like loan collateral, like life gives you some beauty to hold onto after it borrows yours? Or is life the lender, and you have to notice the beauty you give it to hold onto so you don’t default on your beauty mortgage? Or is it collateral beauty like collateral damage, like you have to notice the accidental beauty around you when life drops a beauty bomb?
I think it’s neither and both and probably who the f*ck cares. If I thought the guy who wrote it knew I might bother pondering. Instead I just like to imagine a scenario where Dwayne The Rock Johnson shows up to Allan Loeb’s house in a shiny tank top.
“…And you are?” Loeb would ask.
“I’m Metaphor, and I don’t like the way you’ve been using me,” Johnson would say, pulverizing Loeb’s metacarpals with a vice-like handshake before punching him out a window.