‘It’s a calamity of a movie, for sure; a smorgasbord of awful’ – MacDara Conroy on Collateral Beauty
‘What is this?’ That’s pretty much the entirely of my notes for Collateral Beauty. It’s a calamity of a movie, for sure; a smorgasbord of awful that’s bound to sweep the Razzies in a couple of months’ time, though it’s been over a week now since the press screening and I still can’t quite get a handle on what I watched.
Is it a comedy? Most of the ensemble cast appear to think so, and with good reason, because the tone screams ‘screwball holiday flick’. (And a very poor, ‘this was funnier on paper’ one at that.) Except when it doesn’t, when it cuts from the painfully humourless yuks to the soul-bearing pain of a woman crying over the loss of her child. Yes, that actually happens in this film. Someone thought it was a brilliant decision to juxtapose silly sitcom gags with full-on, heart-rending emotional drama. Strangely enough, all of those scenes involve the lead, who seems to have been under the impression he was making an earnest tearjerker about coping with loss. More on that later.
Things are already off to a rough start in the very first scene, as Will Smith at his most Will Smithy and a parody robot Edward Norton hold court at their impossibly hipster advertising agency. Their job isn’t about selling things, they tell us; it’s about improving people’s lives. (Pass the sick bag.) Smith’s mission statement for this room of central casting creative types is that all of us are connected by three fundamental abstract concepts: love, time and death. (Another sick bag, please.)
Flash forward three years and the Fresh Prince has become a shell of a man. We can tell this because of his gaunt make-up and salt-and-pepper hair and blank expression as he builds a giant domino run in his office in lieu of doing his job. At home, in his austere apartment replete with short-bar bicycle (because hipster), he spends his nights writing letters to those aforementioned abstract concepts, because that’s the kind of thing that brink-of-crazy types do, isn’t it?
Meanwhile, Smith’s co-workers — Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña — express their exasperation at his clearly poor mental state as they discuss company business on the lobby staircase as low-level employees walk by within earshot, because I guess a boardroom or something wasn’t cinematic enough for David Frankel, director of such gems as Marley & Me (self-help sob story bullshit) and The Devil Wears Prada (‘fashion matters!’ propaganda bullshit).
Company business gets discussed in a lot of unconventional places in this film: in a yard selling Christmas trees, over brunch at some place Carrie and the girls would go, even a dingy off-off-Broadway theatre where Norton recruits a trio of actors — hammy Helen Mirren, lock-jawed Keira Knightley and Not Donald Glover (Jacob Latimore) — to play a kind of riff on the ghosts from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a convoluted effort to have Smith declared insane and allow the others to sell the agency and cash out for the win.
It’s far more complicated than it needs to be, though somewhere in there is what might have been the original thrust of the picture, with Smith’s role more of a Scrooge figure who reveals hidden depths. There’s no indication of later rewrites from Allan Loeb’s spec screenplay, but one gets the distinct impression Smith latched onto the grieving-father aspect of his poorly sketched character and would simply not let go, to the detriment of the entire enterprise. It’s worth noting that original director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) excited the project just two months after Smith signed on, citing “creative differences”.
And it’s tempting to see these differences writ large in the fact that Collateral Beauty is two distinctly different movies in awkward entanglement. One is an old-fashioned American comedy fed through the Richard Curtis meat grinder, adulterated with faux profound platitudes and guff about ‘becoming love’. (You don’t even want to know what that mangled nonsense metaphor of a title means.) That it’s simply not one bit funny is almost beside the point. The other, which sees Smith literally come in from the cold to the warm embrace of Naomie Harris’ support group for grieving parents, has moments of genuine insight into the human condition. Really, it does. Even if only for seconds at a time.
That the two combined culminate in a hair-puller of a double twist that would make Shyamalan wince is actually quite fitting, in its own strange way, because I think I might have figured out by now what Collateral Beauty really is, and what it is is a manipulative sham, with a doctrinal anti-psychiatric tinge, if you get my meaning.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s me being a conspiracy nut. But it smells fishy, and it stinks just as bad as the movie. What is this? It’s rotten, that’s what it is.
Collateral Beauty opened nationwide on Monday December 26th
Also published on Medium.