Film Review: Collateral Beauty

by Keith Hill

Rated M. Starring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley. Directed by David Frankel.

Collateral Beauty joins the growing number of star-studded, holiday-themed films that should have gone straight to DVD.

Howard Inlet (Smith) is a successful advertising executive, whose success comes from his ability to understand the ‘why’ – the reason why people do the things they do; the motivations that drive not just their buying habits, but their entire lives. These motivations Howard has reduced to three abstractions – love, time, and death. “We’re here to connect,” he observes in the movie’s opening scene. “Love, time, death: these three things connect every single human being on Earth. We long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death.”

But three years after the death of his six-year-old daughter, Howard has withdrawn from the world, as a shell of the man he once was. He spends his days in the office building domino lines, and his nights alone in his dark apartment. He rarely talks to anyone, but vents his frustration and anger by writing letters – not to people, but letters to the three abstractions – love, time, and death. Death has come too soon and taken his daughter instead of him; time has robbed her of a long life; and love has betrayed him by snatching away the daughter he loved so much.

As Howard increasingly withdraws from the world and neglects his business responsibilities, his three friends Whit (Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) grow increasingly concerned. Their relationships with clients were built on Howard’s charisma and charm, but are threatening to fall apart in his absence. So when an offer to buy the business for more than it’s worth, the three see it as a great opportunity to avoid losing everything they have worked for. The only problem is that Howard is the company’s majority shareholder, and refuses to even engage in a conversation about selling it.

Out of desperation, the three friends hire three actors to portray Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Helen Mirren), and respond in person to Howard’s letters. They hope to prove he is mentally incompetent to run the company, but even more they hope to give Howard an outlet to deal with his grief. A reluctant Howard is convinced by their portrayals, and begins to seek out a support group for people who have lost children, finding support particularly with the group’s leader, Madeleine (Naomie Harris). But as Howard’s three friends spend time with the actors, they too begin to deal with their own issues with love, time, and death.

Collateral Beauty boasts an all star cast, with two Oscar winners, three Oscar nominees, and a current Golden Globe nominee, but despite their combined firepower, they can do little to redeem the meaningless platitudes about overcoming grief, and shameless attempts at cheap tears. Set in New York City at Christmas time, the film owes an obvious debt to the two Christmas stories A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, but possesses none of the charm of those classics.  

As Love confronts Howard in an attempt to help him deal with his grief, he curses her for betraying him. In response, Love tells him that she can be found in every situation – in fact, she is the reason for everything, the ultimate ‘why’. In the midst of all the other trite proverbs that the three actor utter, this one actually rings true. Love is the reason for everything. In the Bible we see that the love the Father has for the Son , and his desire for us to love him too, is the reason we exist, the reason anything exists. It is the reason that the Son was born into a life of poverty and died a criminal’s death – the ultimate expression of God’s love. And when all else has passed away, the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:13, ‘these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’

The Verdict: All the acting firepower in Collateral Beauty can’t make up for a pretty poor attempt at a Christmas tearjerker. Stay home and rent It’s A Wonderful Life. 1/5

Collateral Beauty releases in Australia on January 12, 2017. It is already screening in the USA.

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