'You'll find yourself hating love, time, death, Christmas and humanity itself' - First reviews of Collateral Beauty
How fitting Collateral Beauty should arrive at the end of a deeply strange year.
For this is a deeply strange movie, packed with a-listers wrestling with Hallmark Card dialogue, and suffering from the laughable delusion that it has profound insights about death and grief.
A generous reading would be that screenwriter Allan Loeb (The Switch, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) and director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) had in mind a modern retelling of A Christmas Carol.
The setting is New York at Christmas and the story revolves around a trio of pretend “spirits” representing Love, Time and Death and played, with visible queasiness, by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore. If by the end you don’t find yourself hating love, time, death, Christmas and humanity itself, you haven’t been paying attention.
Our hero is Howard (Will Smith), a charismatic advertising executive turned grieving dad who spends his days mooching around the office – not working but assembling endless rows of dominos, which he grumpily topples before slouching off (presumably to the loo for further moping). Most of us would be fired if we spent our days assembling endless domino rows – but Howard co-founded the business so it’s sort of okay.
Only it really isn’t because his withdrawal following the death of his daughter two years previously threatens to send the agency down the tubes. But there’s a way out, Howard’s best friend Whit (Edward Norton, shellshocked) confides in fellow executives. If they talk Howard into selling the business they can cash out and retire stinking rich That way – who cares if the company goes bust!
There’s a catch. Howard probably won’t agree to the plan. Therefore, Whit and co-conspirators Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) must demonstrate their friend is clinically bonkers and thus legally incapable of exercising his voting options. That’s what pals are for!
To do so – and yes, please feel free to sit as I explain – they hire actors played by Mirren, Knightley and Latimore to embody “death”,” “love” and “time” to pester Howard. These – well, you’ve guessed, haven’t you? – are the abstract concepts by which Howard navigates through life (And to whom he has been writing letters as a way of coping with the loss of his child).
The result is a Christmas calamity. None of the pretend muses have anything insightful to impart to Smith’s character while the movie insists to frankly psychotic degree that Whit and his chums have Howard’s best interest as heart – even as they attempt to manipulate a grieving man so that his insanity can be legally established.
Everybody comes off faintly appalled – it is appropriate, in particular, that Mirren should be cast as the reaper given that she slouches dead-eyed through the entire 96 minutes. The exception is Smith, visibly digging deep as he cycles through his repertoire of sad faces (the film, he has stated, helped him come to terms with the death of his father). He appears to believe he is participating in an uplifting seasonal treat: eggnog latte for the soul. Instead he has fronted a turkey for the ages.
Collateral Beauty is released St Stephen’s Day.