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Collateral Beauty | Review

Terms of Amusement: Frankel’s Sentimental Platitudes Ensconce Profoundly Foolish Melodrama

Collateral Beauty Dave Frankel ReviewThe folly of Will Smith is he’s a performer seemingly unable to differentiate between authentic emotional registers, as proven by a filmography littered with grossly overblown sentimental claptrap. Of course, he’s been rewarded for schmaltzy heroics, receiving an Oscar nomination for a performance in Gabriele Muccino’s 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness which led to the even more questionably idiotic Seven Pounds in 2008. Playing like a sister film to these morose tearjerkers is Smith’s latest performance in Collateral Beauty, a wet-hanky harbinger from director Dave Frankel, himself a director who (despite the acknowledged success of his The Devil Wears Prada) seems woefully unaware of authentic human behaviors, especially regarding depression and despair. This star-studded endeavor is brimming with talented performers, although what any of them found so scintillating in Allan Loeb’s (Here Comes the Boom; Rock of Ages) atrociously written screenplay is never translated to the screen in this staunchly underwhelming and ferociously silly diatribe on loss and learning to love again.

Howard (Smith) is the majority shareholder of a successful advertising firm in New York City. Following their firm’s most successful year, a celebratory speech finds the man discussing the three basic concepts which guide human existence: Love, Death, and Time. Fast forward three years and Howard is in a two-year emotional slump following the death of his child. Coddled by his colleagues, he wallows in despair, the shell of a man he once was (as indicated by shades of gray hair). His partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena), are finally forced to take more drastic action as major investors are bailing due to Howard’s unresponsiveness. Their only hope of turning the sinking ship around is to have Howard declared incompetent and usurp control. Hiring a private investigator (Ann Dowd), they discover Howard has written three letters to Love, Death, and Time. Based on his own interactions with his Alzheimer’s stricken mother, Whit decides they need to enter Howard’s reality and use that as a way to provoke him. Then, record the resulting public outbursts, and bingo, their colleague won’t seem emotionally stable. Hiring three actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly, Jacob Lattimore) by offering them twenty-thousand dollars apiece, they approach Howard as the concepts responding to his angry letters. Finally, this goads the man into attending a self-help group run by Madeline (Naomie Harris). Meanwhile, each of his partners struggles to reconcile their own significant emotional unrest.

Collateral Beauty may be one of the worst examples of melodrama ever made, at least if considering the production value and previous accolades of its lauded cast as its own sort of collateral significance. But in a world where the likes of Charles Dickens once masterfully melded the spiritual and the supernatural to pen a meaningful deliberation on erring humanity, we’ve progressed to an era where Mitch Album has ascended the ranks of pop culture, an author whose emotional manipulations are on par with Frankel’s film.

It’s not hard to see what was being attempted with Collateral Beauty. In many ways, this feels like a throwback formula to old Hollywood, where major stars would be tossed into an expensive production, granting each of them a melodramatic streak. Rather than Grand Hotel (1932), Frankel’s film is more on par with the constrained aura of 1950s mainstream offerings, like Jean Negulesco’s Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), in which Gary Merrill attempts to visit surviving family members of those who died in a plane crash he survived, or even Delbert Mann’s Separate Tables (1958), where a series of lonely hearts waste away their lives at a seaside hotel. What Frankel seems to be aiming for, but fails miserably at reaching, is an essence of the Capraesque, instead accomplishing the emotional equivalent of M. Might Shyamalan. The actors hired to portray Love, Death, and Time are each conveniently paired off with the most appropriate business partner, who, of course are dealing with a significant issue involving one of these three areas. Guess what happens.

As evidence of an elitist bubble mentality, we need look no further than the quartet of wealthy business partners from a vaguely depicted advertising firm in Soho displayed here. Only the narrow-minded perspectives of the incredibly privileged could possibly find the scenario of Collateral Beauty emotionally authentic, where such intensely, passive-aggressive communication patterns allow for three supposedly intelligent, successful people to concoct a goofy plan to sabotage their grieving colleague/friend in order to salvage their failing business (never mind why Smith’s character is still getting paid or why no one has suggested something more aggressive in the two year period since his child’s death) by hiring three theater actors to embody the abstract concepts he’s written letters to. The concept is cruel and unusual, and instead defines how human interaction has been reduced to the severely superficial, as we’re to believe even friends and business partners will go to absurd extremes simply to avoid inevitable discomfort or, even worse, financial sacrifice.

Ironically the film insistently asks us to accept the very platitudes it attempts to be calling out. Take, for instance, Keira Knightley’s character, meant to personify Love. She goads greedy, self-consumed Edward Norton to relay his memories about the day of his daughter’s birth, yet his response couldn’t be more cliché. Likewise, Smith’s big emotional blow-ups with each of the three abstractions only prove the actor’s limitations, although Loeb’s unintentionally laughable screenplay undermines him in every sequence (such as shouting at Knightly about seeing his daughter inside her, screaming ‘daddy’).

Kate Winslet and Michael Pena try to struggle out of their crushing one-dimensionality, while the three concept actors are allowed a bit more presence (what subtext there is involving their venue, the Hegel Theater, would seem to be at odds with the tenets of the eponymous German philosopher, so it must be coincidence). Of the three, Helen Mirren as the distractingly blue-eyed Brigitte/Death brings a bit more depth to her approximation than Knightly or Jacob Lattimore. Poor Naomie Harris gets saddled with one of the silliest reveals ever to be attempted, and all’s well that ends well in a film which seems to have sucked all the wisdom it could from the sentimental cognition of a get-well-soon Hallmark card.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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