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COLLATERAL BEAUTY Ekes Some Authenticity Through Its Nonsense (Review)

COLLATERAL BEAUTY Ekes Some Authenticity Through Its Nonsense (Review)

The plot of Collateral Beauty doesn’t exactly seem like a softball endeavor. For starters, the story is founded on the typically challenging subject matter of a parent’s loss of his child. Such a tragedy is waged in this case upon good-hearted, TED Talk-ing ad exec Howard (Will Smith), whom the film treats as a spiritual visionary despite the fact that he sells cruse line tickets for a living. Even more fragile territory, believe it or not, is the central conceit dreamt up by Howard’s ostensible best friend and colleague Whit (Edward Norton) in the interest of pulling him out of his longstanding funk… or, at least, in the interest of getting him to stop bothering everyone with it. The scheme: dupe Howard into believing he’s being visited by the physical manifestations of love, time, and death, a triad common to the motivational speeches a once revered Howard would make in his heyday.

Given that you probably had to reread the previous paragraph a second or third time in order to ensure that you got that last part right, I’ll assume we’re on the same page in feeling that the maneuvering of this caliber of gambit would entail an awful lot of suspension of disbelief. Be sure to pack the lion’s share, because the film isn’t interested in meeting you halfway. But even if you can accept that Whit and his partners in crime, Simon (Michael Peña) and Claire (freakin’ Kate Winslet, for god’s sakes), could rally together the resources and good kismet to bring his ploy to life, forgiving the trio’s none-too-benevolent motives—their own respective personal tragedies notwithstanding—will be a trying endeavor for even the most Machiavellian of viewers.

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The plan is set into motion (read: not rejected in a red-eyed fury on the grounds of a complete deficit of discernible sense) when Whit, who commands the most screen time of the troop despite being its least sympathetic corner, discovers a trio of stage actors screwing around in a rundown theater ripped from the soul of Jonathan Larson. At this point, Collateral Beauty passes its torch to more inviting hands. The performers agree to play the phantoms of Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore), and Death (Helen Mirren), opening the door for the sort of whimsy and hearty humor upon which the film has up until this point been withholding.

Having tailored his professional and personal ideologies around the notion that this threesome of existential elements is what binds all humankind—which is a fair theory, sure, fine, but is it solid enough on which to build not only a movie, but a harebrained scheme within said movie?—Howard engages quickly enough with the would-be specters. And thankfully so! After a first act of near wordless melancholy, Smith breathes the first glimpse of living color into Howard when thrust into these mysterious unions, mining especial chemistry from his chipper rendezvous with Mirren’s Death proxy.

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It may seem hard to believe that such a self-sabotaging premise can give way to sequences that damn near work, but even with the wind against him, Smith manages to turn in a consistently affective performance. He sells the softer moments alongside Knightley, Latimore, and Mirren, and the harder ones, many of which are spent buried inside himself, quietly wrestling away hysterics. To this end, it is a fatal shame that Smith’s most valuable material, an arc played opposite a fellow grieving parent (Naomie Harris), falls secondary to the verbose scheming of Norton, Peña, and Winslet’s characters. This is not thanks to a matter of quality; such down-to-earth stock simply cannot compete with the high-concept ballyhoos set center stage.

Even with Smith’s ability to sell austere grief, Collateral Beauty never quite validates itself as a story that deserves this performance. Even independent of the misguided nature of the Smith-adjacent plot conspiracy (which is not especially aided by the hokey coloring of its colluders’ one-note side stories), Collateral Beauty seems lost in a fog when it comes to a bona fide discussion about the grief it portends to be dealing in. Case in point: the abject meaninglessness of its title, which is bandied about a good dozen times in what is, as a result, not one of the film’s strongest scenes.

And still, somehow, beyond all good and earnest reason, this convoluted melodrama gives way to some genuinely respectable work. Smith’s gravitas, Mirren’s merriment, and Harris’ dramatism don’t die in vain, a fact elevated to miracle when you consider the ideological discombobulation that is the rest of the movie.

Rating: 2 out of 5

2 burritos

Images: Warner Bros.


Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Trick him into believing you are the anthropomorphic manifestation of love, time, or death on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.

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