Best laid plans case file #90 Collateral Beauty
When I was a film critic in my twenties and thirties I came to scoff indignantly when the death of someone’s child was introduced in a drama. True, there are movies that are honest and artful and humane in their depiction of children’s deaths but they’re outnumbered by slick, cynical movies that use a child’s death as a cheap explanation for why a character drinks whiskey straight from the bottle and rides his bike directly into traffic and seems perpetually on the verge of tears.
Then I became a dad and a child’s death in a movie went from being a depressingly over-used cliche in shameless melodramas to a tragedy almost beyond my comprehension. The idea of a child dying terrifies me to the extent that I’m not sure I could watch a good movie involving children’s deaths, like, say, Manchester By The Sea, because it would be too overwhelming.
In that respect, maybe it’s a good thing that the astonishingly off Will Smith bomb Collateral Beauty deals with the death of the protagonist’s six year daughter in a painfully artificial, unconvincing, tone-deaf way that’s absolutely impossible to believe, yet disconcertingly easy to laugh at, if only because his character’s dead-eyed desolation clashes violently with the glib New York comedy and gimmicky machinations of the rest of the film.
The movie opens with Howard Inlet, Smith’s character, in what will turn out to be an utterly uncharacteristic moment of triumph, energy and excitement. Whit Yardshaw (Christ, even the character names are trying way too goddamned hard), the character Edward Norton plays, describes Howard as his advertising agency’s “resident poet-philosopher of product”, its “rebel command of brand.”
Then Howard starts talking about advertising in lofty, New Age terms. He’s supposed to be both a genius and a saint of capitalism. Think Don Draper by way of Steve Jobs, if Steve Jobs cared about the lives of children and people close to him, or anyone other than himself.
We then made a jarring leap forward to three years later. The light in Howard’s eyes, and his irresistible passion for creating dynamic marketing using a nuanced understanding of life’s three perennials (Death, Time and Love) have been extinguished. Following his daughter’s death, Howard has devoted himself to life as a series of flashy writerly tics. He comes to work every day, but seemingly only so that he can construct the kind of elaborate display of Domino’s it would probably take an entire film crew days to assemble. He goes to dog parks even though he does not have a dog. Co-worker Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) continually brings him Chinese food but he’s too busy sitting in silence and brooding to eat it, or pay his modest rent, despite being rich.
Howard is physically alive but spiritually dead, which is bad news for his partners and co-workers in the company, who love Howard like a brother but really think he should get over the whole “mourning his daughter’s tragic death” thing because his unwillingness to deal with his depression is losing them clients and putting the future of the company at stake. Oh, and also they have a priceless opportunity to sell their company but Howard would have to sign off on it, and he isn’t psychologically ready for anything.
We’re told that Howard’s coworkers have tried just about everything to rouse him from his depressed stupor, but nothing works. Howard, who we are told once exuded love for life and incandescent happiness, now exudes only bleary-eyed sadness and resignation.
In desperation, Whit, Claire and Simon Scott (Michael Pena) hit upon a desperate/insane plan to somehow simultaneously trick, manipulate and lie their way into taking away their friend and coworkers’ legal rights and re-ignite his lost lust for life and send him on a journey of redemption and acceptance.
When a private investigator played by Ann Dowd reveals that, as part of his commitment to cultivating personal eccentricities, Howard regularly not only writes but also mails letters to the abstract concepts of Death, Time and Love, those three concepts he gushed about in the opening scene before everything went Pete Tong and pear-shaped, Howard’s three desperate coworkers formulate a plan.
What kind of letters? Well, here’s a missive he wrote to time,
They say that you heal all wounds, but they don’t talk about how you destroy all that’s good in the world, how you turn beauty into ash. Well, you’re nothing more than petrified wood to me, you’re a dead tissue that won’t decompose. You’re nothing.”
Jeez, with sour sentiments like that you’d think Howard could just about give up on Time becoming his pen pal, or answering his letters, or attaining human form to impart life lessons, but you would be surprised. Very, very surprised.
Terrified of losing all they’ve worked towards all their careers, the desperate co-workershire a trio of theater actors to portray Death, Time and Love in real life, and to confront Howard on the street with the idea that these encounters will be filmed, and then the actors playing Death, Time and Love will be digitally removed, thereby proving that Howard is mentally ill and incompetent to make decisions involving his majority voting share in the ad agency.
Incidentally, just about everything Howard does provides clear-cut evidence that he’s suffering the kind of depression and debilitating mental illness that would make him mentally incompetent to make important business decisions, but the movie desperately needs us to believe otherwise. Nope, there’s only one way to save the company, and that’s through employing actors to portray Time, Death and Love, and then filming Howard’s encounters with them, but employing digital, post-production trickery.
Helen Mirren plays Brigitte, an eccentric actress who jumps at the chance to play “Death” and, in character, visits Howard to help instill valuable life lessons. Collateral Beauty is lousy with life lessons, and also just plain lousy. Then there’s Love, played by Keira Knightley, an ethereal beauty with important life lessons to teach Whit about how to be a father and love his estranged pre-pubescent daughter, who “adorably” confuses philanthropist with philanderer despite seeming to have a better vocabulary than her father.
Then there’s Time, who is played by an African-American actor Jacob Latimore in what I like to imagine is an homage to the legacy of Morris Day. It’s Time’s job to impart to Claire the important life lessons that there’s still time for her to have a baby. I then amused myself by imagining Morris Day in the film’s lead role, with his trusty man-servant Jerome Benton forever by his side, and it improved the film immeasurably. Swapping out Smith (who I like as both a celebrity and an actor, incidentally) for Day and having him wearily ask Jerome, “Jerome, please bring me my mirror so I can see myself weep bitter tears over my child’s death!” represents a huge upgrade, and it couldn’t possibly make the film any sillier than it already is.
At this point you are probably saying to yourself something along the lines of, “Hold up. No, seriously. What the fuck? No way! That cannot possibly be the premise of an actual movie, let alone one with such an abundance of classy, high-priced and acclaimed talent. Why are you lying to us about this movie, Nathan? Do you want to lose what little credibility and standing you have left, Mr. Juggalo?”
I am not lying to you, dear readers. That actually is the premise for Collateral Beauty and, honestly, that only captures about forty percent of the “What the fuck? How could this be happening?” insanity of the film. I’m torn between wanting to reveal one hundred percent of it, since it’s doubtful many of you will see this film, and wanting its “revelations” and twists to remain an exquisitely batshit surprise.
Let’s just say that there’s a reason that the movie feels like a fantasy for reasons beyond its incredible disconnect from real life and plausible human emotions and behavior. Edward Norton previously played Bruce Banner; acting in Collateral Beauty afforded him an opportunity to finally be in a really far-fetched movie filled with impossible characters and developments that can only be understood as the most preposterous kind of comic-book fiction.
There’s a distinct meta element to Collateral Beauty. The movie is a valentine to acting, to storytelling, to putting on a show regardless of the context or ultimate aim. In Collateral Beauty’s weird world, in the right players’ hands, a show has the ability to not just entertain or educate but to save, to transform, to replace the black, sooty ash of infinite sadness with the electric radiance of happiness and meaning.
The conflict onscreen is the same as the one behind the scenes. Is there a troupe of actors so utterly masterful, so brilliant at what they do, and so obscenely, preternaturally gifted that they can make the most insultingly idiotic and preposterous scenario ring with truth and meaning and beauty?
The onscreen events in Collateral Beauty suggests that there are, but it helps if they’re also magical and supernatural and somehow actually are the mythic entities they only seem to be impersonating. The film itself suggests strongly otherwise. Forget playing Hamlet on Broadway: trying to convince movie-goers that Howard would be going about his daily brooding and mourning and, after a few seconds of incredulity, accept that he’s hanging out with human-shaped representations of the abstract concepts of Time, Love and Death is a real acting challenge and one that not even actors as profoundly gifted and experienced as Mirren are up to.
Collateral Beauty was directed by David Frankel, whose resume includes the hits The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me. That might seem like an odd fit considering that Collateral Damage is ostensibly about a grief-stricken man driven to psychological extremes by his incredible loss. Yet Collateral Beauty both confusingly and non-confusingly feels very much like an exploration of life’s weightiest issues from the dude who directed The Devil Wears Prada.
When Smith is writhing in pain, Collateral Beauty is a leaden, painfully earnest melodrama of loss and redemption. When Smith is offscreen, the movie becomes a slick New York comedy-drama so featherweight and unconvincing that not even the impending death of Pena’s character can give it the faintest hint of depth or substance.
What Howard’s coworkers do to him is nothing short of monstrous. It’s illegal, it’s immoral and it sure as shit is unethical, but the movie needs us to like all these characters, despite giving us no reason to do so, so the central scheme is portrayed as a morally sketchy but fundamentally good-hearted attempt to help a man who seems beyond help, and maybe make a lot of money in the process.
Speaking of bizarre tonal shifts, I’ve always thought that Will Smith should release singles and videos for all of his movies summing up their plots and his character’s motivations, the way he did with early films Men In Black, Wild, Wild West and Six Degrees of Separation, although they ended up burying the rap theme to Six Degrees of Separation, despite it being co-written by John Guare and featuring a fun spoken-word cameo from Stockard Channing.
With that in mind, here’s the fun rap theme song I came up with for Collateral Beauty. Will Smith, if you’re reading this, holler at your boy. It’s not too late to make this song a reality for the film’s inevitable Criterion Blu-Ray release.
It’s the kid Will Smith with the Collateral Beauty/Co-workers think I’m going to blow out my brains like Hootie/Cause I treat mourning like it’s my duty
(Chorus) Na na nah, do the Collateral beauty, Nah na nah na nah!
Friends worried the boy lost his mind so they hatched a crazy scheme/Time, Love and Death all up in my business like a wild dream!
They were acting a fool, like Improv Everywhere/the Kid met Death, wasn’t that a scare!
Got a whole troupe of actors chasing me like, “The play’s the thing/That’ll make ya boy The Fresh Prince stop acting like a melancholy king”
I’m getting jiggy with accepting my daughter's passing in the new Willenium/cause now I understand life and death are just part of a continuum!
(repeat chorus to the point of madness)
Boy, if sure was worth the loss of money, prestige and readers when The A.V Club killed My World of Flops so that I could finally have the freedom to be as silly and self-indulgent as humanly possible. If you enjoyed that ditty, just wait until you hear what I and my new collaborator DJ Jazzy Jeff have some up with for The Winter’s Tale, the next Case file in Will Smith Month here at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place (for those keeping track, it's also Feld-Month, AKA Corey Feldman month, Ju-Live and Juggalo July). It’s a cross between “Getting Jiggy Wit It” and “Sympathy for the Devil.”
But Collateral Beauty doesn’t even have the advantage of a toe-tapping, catchy, explanatory rap theme song, just bizarre tonal shifts and a staggeringly wrong depiction of mourning and deep depression. Being a parent made some of Howard’s grief more visceral, powerful and intense than it would have been otherwise but it also made the movie’s shamelessness and emotional dishonesty even more egregious and unforgivable. Collateral Beauty never stops making mistakes, and by the end it’s flown so far off the rails that it angrily demands cult classic status, and not because it’s anything even vaguely resembling good.
Early in the film, before we instantly discern that Pena’s character is dying via that telltale cough-of-impending-doom, his character reflects of his co-workers’ insane plan, “When something starts with a six year old dying, nothing is going to feel right.” He could be talking about the singularly insane boondoggle he and his eminently over-qualified collaborators find themselves trapped in. It prominently features a six year old dying, and nothing, but nothing, about it feels remotely right.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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