Film and TV

Collateral Beauty Is a Misguided Astonishment of Hollywood Therapy

Here's a promise few movies can make. If you sink two hours into Collateral Beauty now, it's guaranteed that for the rest of your life, when conversation stalls, you can save the night by asking, "Did you ever see that movie where Will Smith plays an ad executive so shut down with grief over the death of his daughter that his business partners — played by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña — hire actors to confront him in public in the roles of Death, Time and Love, the abstract concepts to whom he has been penning and mailing angry letters?"

Maybe you'll be at a dinner. Maybe nobody will believe you. Or maybe they will, and someone will say, "Hollywood is terrible at making movies about trauma.”

Maybe you'll reply, "Manchester by the Sea came out the same year, so it can be done. But this —"

You'll shake your head. You'll still struggle to accept that what you saw on that screen actually played in theaters, was funded and approved by distributors, took a month or so of the lives of those extraordinary actors. “Helen Mirren plays the actress who plays Death," you'll say. (They won't believe you.) "And Keira Knightley plays Love.” (That they’ll find more plausible.) "But that's not the weirdest part. The business partners want the Will Smith character to step aside, because their firm is floundering, so they set it up so that he believes that nobody but him can see Death, Time and Love, even when he's shouting at them on the streets of Manhattan."

There will be silence.

"This was a dark comedy, right?" someone might finally say.

"No. We're meant to find his partners sympathetic. It's meant to be inspiring, and it ends in hugs and growth. But even the filmmakers seem skittish about the premise. They keep pretending it's actually about the business partners trying to nudge their old pal back toward an emotional breakthrough, like if Scrooge were just a good guy shaken by loss, and his pal Bob Cratchit gaslit him with a haunting and an intervention. But the plot demands that a private detective film Will Smith's character shouting at Love in the West Village and at Death on the subway. And then the business partners digitally remove the actors from that footage so it looks as if their deeply trouble friend is actually yelling at nobody."

They will shake their heads. They will say you're making it up. You may wonder if it's you who was gaslit, in that theater. Could this have been an actual movie? Aren't the people who make movies people, too? People who, in real life, might themselves have suffered bereavement, and would know that there's better, less dangerous therapy than the staging of faux-hallucinated interventional public theater pieces? And wouldn't movie people know better than the rest of us how prohibitively expensive it would be to digitally scrape Helen Mirren off that subway footage where Smith rages at her? The detective filmed her from behind, standing right in front of Smith, so that means that in the world of Collateral Beauty a team of overseas CGI artists would have had to render every fabric and fiber of Smith's scarf and jacket, just to pull this stunt off!

But you'll continue. “And it turns out that the three business partners themselves each need an intervention from Death, Love and Time. They each get paired off with one of the actors playing the concepts. Peña's character is secretly dying, and he hasn't told his family, but Mirren inspires him to open up. Norton's can't connect to his daughter after his divorce, and Love — Keira Knightley, remember — promises that she'll relent and agree to go out on a date with him if he can make up with the daughter. He's the hero who gets the girl, but his act of heroism is just that, after hiring performers to assail his business partner's sanity, he makes an effort at parenting.”

The women will nod. They might think you've made up the rest, but that malarkey sounds like Hollywood.

“And then there's Time, played by Jacob Latimore, who's too good for this. He gets paired up with Kate Winslet. Remember, in 2016 Winslet was 40ish, and Hollywood believes that Time is something only women should worry about. Winslet's entire arc is a couple quick shots of her eying pamphlets and websites about sperm donors, and then being told at the end, by the actor playing Time, who knows nothing about her, that she's going to be a good mother.”

Once the groans settle, and someone has confirmed with IMDb that Collateral Beauty is a real movie that actually played in American theaters, you will probably be asked: “How was Will Smith?”

You'll have to mull it before answering. “Distant,” you'll say. “Guarded. He's really convincing as someone who doesn't want to be there. It's the kind of serious performance you sometimes see from Adam Sandler or Robin Williams when they mistake 'seriousness' for giving us nothing.” A thought will come to you. “He's terrific at the end, when he finally cries. And he lights up in the flashbacks. He smiles and is warm and radiant in ways he hadn't been onscreen in years. The movie's about a bunch of business partners trying to snap him back to that winning self. Maybe that was also the case behind the scenes.”

Maybe they'll consider this. Maybe someone will ask, “Is there a twist? Movies about the mind and trauma always have a twist.”

“There are two,” you'll say. But you won't describe them, because nobody would possibly believe them.
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl