Collateral Beauty is an evil film

SPOILERS

A number of actors acquitted themselves in a manner befitting their status as professionals. The money paid out by the production went to a number of people who needed it for things like food, rent, childcare, and perhaps things that improved their happiness. The movie was not too long, but was still long enough to qualify as a feature length production. No animals were harmed in the making of this production.

There, I’ve gotten the urge to say anything nice about Collateral Beauty out of the way. Shall we begin?

My personal definition of evil is the deliberate and willing choice to do the wrong thing, even when you are aware that what you are doing is considered wrong. In addition, that thing may be harmful to society or those experiencing what you are doing. In that way, I think Collateral Beauty is an evil film.

Before you’ve even walked in, this film has likely already lied to you. Let me not ever waste too much time blasting a film for its marketing campaign, but here I think it speaks to the overall idea that the people making this film knew how messed up it is.

If you saw the trailer:

You’d likely think of this as a fable. A Christmas morality tale in the style of It’s A Wonderful Life where three spirits descend to give our sad leading man Howard (Will Smith) his life back and teach him how to move on from his pain. Schmaltzy, but possibly effective.

Oh no. This is not that.

For starters, Howard is not our leading man. He’s a plaything, a MacGuffin for our actual main characters to manipulate and for the creatives to manipulate to attempt to wring pathos out of this horror of humanity.

Our leads are actually Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). They’re three of Howard’s business partners who have been woefully inconvenienced by his grief and have done everything short of sitting down and talking to try and help him. Their company is in jeopardy due to a series of bad decisions made well beforehand and so in order to cash out and fix their problems, they hire a PI to investigate Howard and see if he can be deemed mentally unfit to vote in his company so they can sell it off.

But wait, there’s worse. They find that he’s been writing letters to Love, Death, and Time (telegraphed in the opening scene when Howard names them the three most important forces in an inspirational speech). So Whit gets an idea. See, he met this pretty actress lady (Kiera Knightley) waiting for one of his auditions and found out she had a theater troupe. Based on how he handles his dementia-ridden mother, he, Claire, and Simon decides to hire the actress Aimee along with the other two members of her troupe, Raffi (Jacob Lattimore) and Brigitte (Helen Mirren). The three of them will PLAY Love (Knightley), Time (Lattimore), and Death (Mirren) and make Howard have conversations with them so that the PI can catch video and alter it so it appears he’s talking to no one.

So, in case you didn’t quite get that, this is a movie where our heroes engage in the act of gaslighting (deliberate abusive manipulation to make someone doubt their perception of reality) for their own ends. The film considers this a noble thing for them to do and our sympathies are supposed to lie with them in their struggles.

You see, each of them just so happens to have a problem that relates to one of the concepts. Whit’s daughter seems to have stopped LOVING him. Claire wasted TIME to have a family. Simon is DYING and hasn’t told his wife. I hope you see where this is going.

This is, in the film’s mind, excusing them from the horrible things they’re doing, more befitting the villains of a psychological thriller than the heroes of a prestige drama. Oh, the movie’s aware of how horrible it is. Brigitte directly brings up Gaslight, the play and movie the concept of gaslighting is based on. It isn’t just hand-waved away, it’s ignored. Aimee registers multiple objections and misgivings. She’s just a problem, one to be fixed and convinced and she ultimately goes along with it anyway.

And ultimately they are validated! Directly told that they did the right thing! By Howard! This is a film that believes it’s telling a heartwarming story and is instead telling the story of three sociopaths seeking to possibly ruin the life of a man who did everything for them (something the film also points out). It does not punish them, it does not call them out, it does not make it clear. It agrees with them, it excuses them, it loves them. This is a film that fundamentally praises people doing something wrong, and in that it is evil.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this, but that’s because for me, it is the film’s chief and unavoidable collapsing sin. A film so fundamentally misguided in its main conception that it actively does harm to itself and to the sensibilities of the viewers. A film billing itself as sweet and healing that is nasty and wrong.

But oh, don’t worry. There’s plenty for those who may not necessarily agree with my reading of the central core of the film.

For example, the script is a scotch-taped collection of half-remembered inspirational quotes from your aunt’s Facebook wall and half the first page of Google results for “how people deal with grief.” Manchester by the Sea’s Oscar campaign this year should just be a copy of this film with a sticky note that says “Look how hard it is.” This is a film that believes it knows so much about how people grieve, but it doesn’t portray it a single way that is difficult. It’s all about the easy, the cheap. 

The film seems to be in love with two central twists that it spends most of its time telegraphing.

One is the only thing Howard gets to do in the whole film. He starts going to a group counseling led by the kindly Madeleine (Naomie Harris). They start to connect and she helps him open up. At one point, Madeleine hands him a note she received from her ex-husband which says “I wish we could be strangers again.” If you don’t see where this is going, I have a bridge I would like to sell you, but yes, it turns out Madeleine is his divorced wife.

The other is in regards to the actors playing Love, Death, and Time. And just by saying that, you know that yes, they are actually the embodiments of Love, Death, and Time. The original script underlined this MUCH further, but it’s still here.

The problem with the first one is that it means nothing. It adds nothing thematically, nothing narratively (in fact, makes narrative more confusing), and adds nothing morally. It’s a twist for twist sake, designed to manipulate the audience into believing they’ve been wowed, a cinematic rabbit from a hat.

The problem with the second is its attempt to excuse. You see, they’re not horrible people, it’s the cosmos manipulating them. The problem is that in a film that had no magic up until then,they don’t get that excuse. They still made their choices thinking they were making them in the context of the film.

That short runtime by the way? Seems to have been at the expense of any connective tissue. It’s a flipbook film, hoping that if it goes fast enough you’ll see a picture and not a series of disconnected images. Nothing is given weight, there are only attempts to pull emotional strings and make you react before you think.

Finally, the film’s overriding aesthetic sensibility is that there isn’t a damn thing that you can’t underline with music or push in on, and if you aren’t doing that then why care? Director David Frankel has done everything in the most obvious way possible for no necessary reason. He’s barely here. This is a boring film telling a horrible story.

I wish I could praise somebody or something. Norton, Pena, Winslet, and Lattimore are giving performances afflicted with Givememycheckandletmegetoutofhereitis and Mirren, Smith, and Knightley are giving performances that seem to follow out of different films. No one seems to be serving the film as it exists, just as they’re hoping it is. These are good actors that I can’t believe are here.

Collateral Beauty is the kind of bad you talk about at dinner parties to dropped jaws. It’s the kind of bad you remember the next time you see Frankel or Loeb’s name. It’s the kind of bad you lose respect over. It’s the kind of bad that makes you colder, harder, and more cynical.

It blows my mind that this was allowed a wide release. It blows my mind that anyone thought this was a good idea, that no one stopped them, that no one thought “Hey, why are we letting these monsters do what they do?” Who was willing to give this movie money?  

Don’t see this. If you feel the need to talk about it, read this and other reviews and pretend. You don’t need this in your life.

Grade: F

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