Release date: 26th December 2016/Watch the trailer here
The following review contains minor spoilers.
Collateral Beauty, very much like Passengers before it, is a frustrating film to write a spoiler-free review of, because both films had such misleading trailers which chose not to reveal ‘plot twists’ that happen within the first act. So while these ‘twists’ (if you can even call them that) happen early enough in the film that they should hardly qualify as spoilers, the trailers lead us to believe that we’re about to watch a very different film from what we’re really getting (e.g., in Passengers, the trailer made it look like Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters both wake up at the same time due to malfunctioning hibernation pods).
Collateral Beauty, directed by David Frankel, is Will Smith’s annual attempt at an Oscar nomination. He plays Howard, a man struggling to cope with the death of his young daughter, who writes letters to Love, Time and Death as a way of processing his grief. His awful co-workers and so-called friends, concerned about the effect that Howard’s depression is having on their job at an ad agency, decide that the best way to save a major contract is to gaslight Howard. They do this by hiring three struggling actors to play Love, Time and Death, while a private investigator follows them around, filming Howard talking to seemingly no one, thus providing his co-workers with physical evidence that Howard is completely insane. Obviously.
The ridiculously convoluted plot doesn’t end there. Howard’s friends are all battling their own personal demons, too, and thanks to a clumsy, heavy-handed script courtesy of writer Allan Loeb, each of their issues is tied conveniently to either Love, Time or Death. There is Whit (Edward Norton), who cheated on his wife and as a result is detested by his daughter, but is convinced by actress Amy (Keira Knightley) to harass and stalk his daughter until she likes him again (this is love, apparently). Meanwhile, Claire (Kate Winslet) is constantly browsing sperm donor websites and leaving leaflets lying around for young actor Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to see, so that he can remind her that time is just an illusion, or something. Least subtle of all is Simon (Michael Peña), who is literally dying: cue Helen Mirren as Brigitte, the eccentric actress cast as Death herself.
Just reading the plot is enough to induce eye-rolls and nausea, but this is intensified when it’s actually playing out onscreen, with every character constantly on the verge of tears and saying the kind of pretentious things that no one ever says in real life. Collateral Beauty does an absolutely disastrous job of dealing with sensitive issues such as death, illness and divorce by manufacturing every single line to manipulate your emotions. David Frankel may as well be standing there, shouting ‘You will cry!’ at every audience member, such is the total absence of subtlety.
It’s not just the blatant emotional manipulation that makes Collateral Beauty a tough film to cry at, either. There is a constant emphasis on money – the actors need money to fund their play, so Whit, Claire and Simon happily throw thousands of dollars at them, comfortable in the knowledge that their evil plan will succeed, save the contract, and make them all rich. It’s a bizarre thing to focus on in a film that is so otherwise mawkish, and as a result it leaves the film feeling even colder than its New York City at Christmas setting.
Finally, when all the tears have been shed and the plot has reached peak ridiculousness levels, you can’t help but walk away from Collateral Beauty with a bitter taste in your mouth. Even if it does succeed in leaving you a little misty-eyed, it will feel as though those tears have been forcibly taken from you by a film that is so calculatingly intent on being something sentimental.