Movie Review: Collateral Beauty

A holiday film offers an ill-conceived justification for gaslighting your boss

Collateral Beauty
Directed by David Frankel
With Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren

Several holiday films deal with a little bit of magic: Three Christmas ghosts appear, or an angel comes to help someone out, or there is some mix up with Santa Claus and his elves at the North Pole. Collateral Beauty wants to capture the feeling of those films, but it is a fraud. The advertisements make it look like three holiday spirits appear to Will Smith's character, but that is not what happens at all. The real plot is rather dark and twisted; although for some reason everyone tries to pretend it is not. The main action takes place around the holidays, and the film is mean to be some sort of holiday tragedy / comedy.

Will Smith plays Howard Inlet, an advertising executive. In the opening, he gives the staff an inspirational speech about how all advertising relates to three topics: love, time and death. It is an odd speech that seems quite contrived but everyone applauds and acts inspired.

Next scene it is three years later, and Howard is playing with dominoes in the corner and refusing to talk to anyone. Clients are going to other advertising firms. But nobody can do anything since Howard is the majority shareholder. It is revealed that Howard's child died more than two years ago and he has been withdrawn ever since, and driving the company to disaster.

In real life, the loss of a child is a tragedy. In films, it can be a cheap ploy to evoke sympathy for fictional characters. Collateral Beauty drags the idea down to new depths.

Howard's so-called friends and partners at the advertising firm — Edward Norton (Whit Yardsham), Simon Scott (Michael Peña) and Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) — decide to show their support by hiring a private investigator to find some reason they can use so prove him to be mentally unfit to exercise control over his stock. For some reason that isn't explained too well, everyone at the company can keep their jobs if the control of the company is sold to a different firm. Usually this results in everyone being fired and the plot has people trying to stop the sale. But that is the least of the worries.

Whit comes up with a new plan. He uses some letters that the private eye found as a way to actually drive Howard into being crazy. The technical term is gaslighting, coming from the 1944 film Gaslight where Charles Boyer systematically manipulates his wife Ingrid Bergman so he can steal from her. Charles Boyer was the villain and Ingrid Bergman was the victim. But in Collateral Beauty, the three manipulative co-workers are supposed to be the heroes.

In the advertisements, it seems the spirits of the ideas from Howard's speech — Love, Time and Death — show up like the ghosts from A Christmas Carol. They don't. Early on in the film Whit and his co-conspirators hire some struggling actors to pop up randomly and convince Howard he is suffering from nervous-breakdown-type hallucinations. It is supposed to be funny.

The spirit actors are played by Keira Knightley as Love, Helen Mirren as Death and singer Jacob Latimore as Time. Knightley's character is the only one who has any qualms about driving someone insane. The others think it is a good chance to do some cutting-edge street acting.

But the script tries to be deep and multi-layered, or high-concept. Each of the three co-conspirators has a problem … that relates to love, time or death.

The filmmakers, director David Frankel working from a script by Allan Loeb, are also manipulating the audience. Oddly, through all the talk of Howard losing a child, no details are ever given about what happened, the child's name is not mentioned, no photo is seen and there isn't a word about the mother. This is to cover up a cheesy faux–heart warming plot twist later in the film. But anyone paying attention will see the oddity of the lack of information — and perhaps feel tricked when the surprise is revealed.

The cast is filled with talented actors. Helen Mirren manages to breath a little life into her part, but not nearly enough to save this sorry holiday mess. Keira Knightley is charming, but her role is underdeveloped. She has a promising start, auditioning for an advertisement, but that plot line is dropped. Jacob Latimore is the least successful of the spirits, striking a series of false notes.

Will Smith also does poorly as Howard, but there is no way to convincingly handle the role. Smith's character makes odd facial gestures when Edward Norton's Whit Yardsham asks simple questions about why he can't sign some forms to save the company from ruin. He also doesn't quite connect when he is talking to the spirits, again because the concept simply doesn't work on any rational level.

And the co-conspirators, well, it is hard to have sympathy for villains who try to convince themselves they are taking the high road. Oscar winner Kate Winslet is particularly wasted in a cliched role of a woman worried about her ticking biological clock.

And just what the phrase “collateral beauty” means is never really explained, although people say it a few times.

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