“Collateral Beauty” could very well be the worst movie of its kind that claims to deal with the hardships of life since the Comedy/Drama, “Patch Adams”. It’s, “The Secret” by way of someone following the advice of Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, “Save The Cat” without a hint of self-awareness about how mean-spirited their hook is or even how ill-defined their supposedly helpful concepts are. It’s a bottle of cyanide sweetened to diabetes-causing levels and sold to you as an energy drink, a movie that features human beings walking the streets of present-day New York yet somehow manages to be more disconnected from actual human experience than any superhero movie or “Fast & Furious” sequel to date. Beneath it’s mawkish exterior lies a toxic and sickening mess that somehow manages to waste some of the most talented and skilled people working in the business today (for instance, Jacob Latimore acts his ass off in this, and he deserves oh so much better)…and I am here to lay it all out to you. God fucking help me.
Everything I am typing here is based on what I recollected to a lovely person who I’ve been dating and hanging out with for quite some time. So: the boss of a marketing company, played by Will Smith, is a very happy and successful person when suddenly their child dies. As a result he goes through a lot of grief that renders him unable to do his job but which allows him to express his grief through riding his bike through traffic without getting hit once and building elaborate domino sculptures at his job and then knocking them over before leaving. Meanwhile, his three business partners (played by Michael Peña, Edward Norton and Kate Winslet) witness the business struggle without his direct involvement, and wish to make a business sale that could save the company but cannot be done without the boss’s agreement. So they hire a private investigator played by Ann Dowd to spy on the boss, and they discover that he has been writing letters to, “Love”, “Time” and, “Death” as another way of expressing his grief about his lost child. The three business partners then hire three actors (Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley and Jacob Latimore) to play as the physical manifestations of, “Love”, “Time” and, “Death” to his boss. Then they have the private investigator follow the boss around as he argues with these actors, records footage of these arguments on her iPhone, and somehow has the actors digitally erased from this footage so that they can then show the recorded videos to the company board, having him declared incompetent to run the company due to him looking like he is having a mental breakdown.
In the midst of all of this, the three business partners have problems of their own. Edward Norton’s character is a divorcee whose daughter hates him and who also has a mother dealing with onset dementia after a stroke (by the way, he is the one who hatches the plan to hire actors to gaslight his own boss based on a conversation he says he had with his Uber driver about dealing with his mother’s dementia). Kate Winslet’s character is a single woman who desperately wants to have a family of her own, as seen in extended shots of her perusing websites listing sperm donations. Michael Peña is dealing with a form of cancer that he is hiding from his family after just having a baby son with his wife due to fear of being left broke due to cancer treatment and also because of the fear of anxiety of his family having to deal with saying goodbye to him. Also in the midst of this: Will Smith’s character attending a support group of parents who lost their children, lead by Naomie Harris’ character, who recounts with him a story of her lost daughter and how on the day of her divorce, she was given a card that reads, “If only we could be strangers again”, which she describes as, “The most romantic gesture she ever got”.
Now imagine all of this playing with dramatic music meant to communicate that this is all, “powerful”, “emotional” and, “inspirational”, as whatever emotional power this movie could’ve had is undercut by a musical score so sappy maple tree forests in Canada could sue for embezzlement. Also imagine all of this being spaced out with almost every character verging between smarmy self-deprecation and monologues that sound like the rough draft of a book written by Deepak Chopra after a traumatic brain injury. And don’t even get me started on how the third act not only has Will Smith forgive the deception his own business partners put them through, but also magically makes him perceptive enough to know about the problems each business partner has while making him such a fucking doofus that he doesn’t realize that the person leading the support group he attends is his ex-wife, who invites him to their former home and basically interrogates him with footage of him playing with his dead child into saying her name and crying. Oh, yeah, and the three actors playing, “Love”, “Time”, and “Death” may or may not actually be physical manifestations of those concepts due to another plot twist that has Naomie Harris’ character talking to the same actor playing, “Death” in a hospital the day her child dies, followed by an ending shot that has Will Smith looking at the three actors watching him from above at a bridge and then disappearing. I say, “may or may not” due to how they are seen owning a big ass theater that never gets populated by anyone but them reciting a play, and they ask for $20,000 in cash and/or check before agreeing to play along. Nevermind that $20,000 would last an actual actor three days, at best, in present day New York. And if they really are the physical manifestations of such concepts, why do they decide NOW to appear? Why would they choose to appear in the life of a bunch of relatively well-off folks when there are multiple people around the world who have experienced grief based on those things, and…fuck.
Obviously, what I tried to describe is just the movie’s way of having its cake and eating it, too. All cross-stitched with inoffensive cinematography/production values and some uncomfortable moments like an extended shot of the camera leaning into a grieving mother’s face as she recounts her last moments with her son in the support group while the music blares. I’d compare the making of this movie to hardcore porn, but at least porn gives the viewer the benefit of a doubt as it ogles the figures of whomever is present for 30-40 minutes depending on your stamina. “Collateral Beauty”, on the other hand, is basically someone smacking you in the face over and over with ill-defined feel-good concepts and characters who talk about their personal problems over and over as opposed to simply living as actual people. This movie doesn’t soothe, it twists human behavior into an ugly caricature. For fuck’s sake, the business partners scam their own boss based on a conversation one of them has with an Uber driver about their mother’s dementia. That is an encapsulation of how this movie treats grief, struggle and loss: as little more than a ladder step to a philosophy that is sure to be picked up and recommended by New Age philanderers everywhere as this movie hits Blu-Ray/DVD and streaming.
And the worst part is that this movie will succeed as a cult hit. Somehow. Despite this movie apparently tanking at the box office, expect this movie to find second life on DVD/streaming amongst people who earnestly tell you to stop using Wi-Fi because it could give you cancer and who recommend that you don’t vaccinate your kids because autism is evil or something. People whose very lives are built upon the sciences they disdain and who, rather than deal with grief by realizing that it stays with you and try to find genuine solace, instead try to handwave it away through mantras that would barely fit a fucking bumper sticker. “Collateral Beauty” is the toxic concentration of every bit of New Age philosophy that is naive at best, condescending and even victim blaming at worst. It’s an enabler of a way of thought about human emotions that encourages ignorance and fraudsters who claim to have easy answers about how we work in this fucked up and beautiful world we live in, and it is deserving of nothing less but contempt. Fuck this movie. Fuck it in its pretentious little ass.
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