COLLATERAL BEAUTY Review

Posted on Saturday, January 6th, 2018 at 5:12 pm

[Originally written for and published on Crossfader Magazine]

COLLATERAL BEAUTY is a clickbait film.This is a seasonal melodrama destined to be chopped up into pieces and redistributed as individual Facebook videos with “LIKE THIS IF YOU CRY EVERY TIME” and “EVERYONE SHOULD SEE THIS” stamped in bold letters above and below the frame. In similar argument for things being cliché for a reason, this film is certainly not without light merit. The cast here is the fantasy football version of a solid line-up of solid actors. They put their work in and shine in key moments. It’s hard to take these portions for their individual worth, as they’re bridged together in a perplexing fashion that ends up highlighting the film’s premise that much harder. Put the pieces together and what you get is a frankly sociopathic, tonally schizophrenic screwball drama whose concept is so high that it’s almost worth seeing, like a fireworks display that accidentally launches all of its fireworks at once, setting off car alarms and making babies within the vicinity bust into fearful tears. It’s disturbing and odd, but hard to look away from.

Half of COLLATERAL BEAUTY is about a grieving father, Will Smith going hard in his own special way, trying to cope with his young daughter’s death. It involves harrowing group therapy sessions and extreme acts of defiance toward sanity and self-care, in addition to a maudlin effort to write letters to abstract concepts, criticizing and demanding answers from “Death,” “Love,” and “Time.” The other half involves this father’s career as an advertising guru being in jeopardy for his co-horts because of his emotional inability to keep working. The trailer might not indicate this, but the magical realism of Will Smith talking to these concepts personified is not the kick-off point of the film. Instead, it follows a ridiculous plot by his friends: they hire actors to fulfill these roles and talk to him in public, pulling visceral reactions from him so that a private investigator can film him acting out, then digitally remove the actors, and then use the footage as evidence that he is not mentally fit to hold the company back. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… literally, because there’s somehow even more than that.

David Frankel is weird a director. His filmography convinces me with each entry that he should maybe work as a cinematographer for more story-capable directors. Yes, he can deliver so-light-it’s-floating comedy. Weirdly, yes, he can make an interesting frame, semi-inspired by story and character. But even the biggest fans of MARLEY & ME have to acknowledge the man has no subtlety. It’s like having a sincere conversation with someone that maybe has the right words or ideas, but is whispered through a broken megaphone that blares feedback every four-five seconds. That said, consider that some people don’t mind the heaviness. The fact that themes of loss and tragedy are explored at all means enough to some viewers. Frankel’s films have found audiences easily because he’s not a pretentious snob. Yet somehow, COLLATERAL BEAUTY takes that frank humanity and makes it comically convoluted.

Put lightly, this film is a roller coaster. It’s a sociological misstep and misunderstanding in the desire to help someone in emotional and mental pain. The film flies off the rails, if not from its hoaky Hallmark direction, the moment after Edward Norton’s character admits to helping his dementia-addled mother stay grounded by playing to her delusion. A tricky notion, sure, but also the tip of an iceberg fit for someone like Nathan Fielder from NATHAN FOR YOU to mistake as a good idea fit for humans. The film goes as far as to literally mention the term “gaslighting,” which it tries to disprove that it is doing. Sure, the encounters with the legitimately troubled protagonist tread genuine lines of existential conversing, whether it’s real or “in character” for the actors. The script and structure expects the audience to be wowed by the inherent emotion of each scene’s mere idea, without realizing just how much of a violent and sudden shift they’re making every time. Every moment of sincerely delivered sadness or regret, suddenly feels to be shown for what it is: a peg in an elaborately stupid plot. No matter how hard it tries, COLLATERAL BEAUTY never manages to elevate or escape its stupefying concept.

I love Will Smith. The guy is a fantastic performer, and despite some iffy directing he’s received in the past, the dude truly gives it his all every time he’s on screen, whether it’s emotionally or in “doing his thing,” which is to slip into his comfortable brand of screwball humor. Both are on display here, and it’s odd. One minute he’s shuffling around like a depressed Buster Keaton, another he’s riding a bicycle DIRECTLY INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC (a scene I hope becomes a popular .gif), and in another he’s weeping while spouting a monologue about how the different ways of thought and faith tackle handling loss. It’s a firing-on-all-cylinders performance that makes hoaky dialogue somewhat tolerable and minorly insightful. But this isn’t new territory for Smith. In this sense, he’s never been able to turn a whole film around, and this is no different. His performance is all over the place, and the film is all over the place.

Even the supporting actors, including Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Ann Dowd, Kiera Knightley, and Jacob Latimore are all in their own little films, probably giving consistent performances respectively. Together it’s like a poorly rehearsed Jimmy Fallon sketch trying to win an Oscar in the most ill-conceived way possible. Oh, and poor Naomie Harris, who along with Will Smith, shares the most harrowing circumstances the film has to offer. She puts her all out there and is underserved by the overall film’s need to keep twisting itself. By the time the film decides they should go all-in on the tragedy portion of its story, it throws in an EVEN STRANGER plot mechanic that left me hung up on its plausibility more than its actual effect. A movie that wants to deliver powerful scenes of human empathy shouldn’t be this caught up in a maze made up of its own ridiculous devising.

The most disappointing aspect of COLLATERAL BEAUTY lays with its potential. This is an asinine plot, yes. But films that have tapped into human truths deeper than any other have been able to function on a higher level concept; it’s possible. The juxtapositions allow themes in films like THE TRUMAN SHOW, anything by Charlie Kaufman, or even this year’s SWISS ARMY MAN to ring harder than even the most grounded dramas. In fact, I’d go as far as to say if painted any other way, COLLATERAL BEAUTY would be a hilarious film, or a super dark and crazy piece of AMERICAN PSYCHO-like sociopathy. It mirrors the motif of intricate domino set-ups in the film, only to be torn down; it’s highly intricate, but to what end? Ultimately, it’s kinda just crazy, unable to catch up with any of its genuine -isms. This is both the reason to not see this film, as well as the reason as to why one maybe should be curious in the first place. It’s a film whose entire worth is in the aggressive re-describing of its dumb plot from a friend with good storytelling skills. Otherwise, it’s a wholly out of touch wonder.

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