“If only we could be strangers again.”
There’s a moment in the trailer for Collateral Beauty when Helen Mirren‘s character “Death” is talking to someone who we cannot quite see but who we definitely know is not Will Smith. This was an intriguing ah-ha moment for me because the premise of Allan Loeb‘s script—which passed through Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s hands when Hugh Jackman was attached before landing in David Frankel‘s lap—which states that only Smith’s grieving Howard Inlet can see her. She’s an abstract construct much like “Love” (Keira Knightley) and “Time” (Jacob Latimore), figments of his fractured imagination to whom he speaks as a sort of cathartic therapy. So this brief second made me wonder, “What if these three are hired actors?” What if Howard’s friends recruit them to help him when he refuses assistance?
This got me psyched to see the film because I thought it would be the coolest little twist. I was going to see it anyway because I’m a sucker for Smith in these types of distraught roles a la the underrated (in my mind) Seven Pounds, but this added some gamesmanship...I wanted to see if I was right. Lo and behold, I was. Just not in the way I thought—obviously considering I’m writing about it now without a “spoiler” warning. You see, Loeb didn’t write this bit of table-turning as a twist. He wrote it as his plot. And it’s not necessarily that Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) do it to help either.
They do to a certain degree, but the ruse is mostly so a court can declare Howard unable to fulfill his duties as a voting partner of the company he owns with Whit. Howard’s daughter had died two years earlier and even though he took all but six months of that time off, he’s a shell of what he was. He barely talks; barely goes anywhere but home, work and a dog park; and refuses to accept selling the ad agency despite his lack of involvement causing many clients to leave because they only signed on to personally work alongside him. They’re drowning and employee lives are at stake if the whole thing goes under. So Whit must think outside the box to do what’s right for his team.
So he hires a PI (Ann Dowd) to follow his best friend and recruits an amateur theater troupe consisting of Brigitte (Mirren), Aimee (Knightley), and Raffi (Latimore). These last three will provide Howard with the supposedly fictional sounding board needed to work out his anger and helplessness while Dowd films it all to manipulate the board and work around his control. It’s a vicious trick that would be hard to swallow even if the motivation were absolutely pure. So knowing the endgame is to pretty much ruin his credibility is devastating. And while Claire feels that guilt, she goes along with the plan. To a point, Howard is being selfish. He’s hijacking the lives of many because he no longer can articulate his. Drastic times call for drastic measures.
There’s something wonderful about this premise’s messiness. I anticipated stock Hollywood melodrama and received something far more complex thanks to the grounding of fantastical characters in reality. This provides some brilliant psychology to mine for 100 minutes and truly gets to the core of Howard’s suffering. If Collateral Beauty stuck to that focus it could have been great. If Loeb hadn't also given Whit, Claire, and Simon their own sob stories, stealing time and energy from Smith’s mental anguish, this film might have escaped the inevitable schmaltzy sentimentality that eventually rears its ugly mug via clichéd camera close-ups of emotional reactions to poignant words of wisdom. When there’s truth to Howard’s progression—for better or worse—his three co-workers receive light bulb clarity.
It’s devastating to watch as touching scenes of emotion between Smith and Mirren, Knightley, or Latimore segue into Norton, Winslet, or Peña’s struggles. The problem isn’t that the trio fails to do their roles justice or that what ails them isn’t equal to what ails Smith. They’re combatting personal tragedy, too, but we’ve spent so much time with tractor beams on Howard’s complete disintegration that the rest feels less important. To suddenly be asked to shift towards them when Smith is knocking it out of the park does a disservice to their characters and our investment. I’ll lay down a minor spoiler: Whit, Claire, and Simon need major problems for the final reveal to work. But maybe that reveal is less necessary to the story than simply cute.
Where Collateral Beauty excels is with Howard’s trajectory. Watching him as a firecracker via a prologue before seeing the quiet, sad shadow he becomes is heartbreaking. Experiencing the love his friends have for him while still needing to come to grips with reality and know that the ship will sink if they don’t do something is just as affecting. Whit, Claire, and Simon’s actions as they pertain to Howard are complicated in and of themselves because of their dual roles of assistance and destruction. And how “Death,” “Time,” and “Love” drive him to seek help from a local grief counselor in Naomie Harris‘ Madeleine only adds more depth to the mix. Smith expertly reacts to these “imaginary” figures with incredulous rejection and then passionate rage. This is an awakening.
In the end Loeb’s script is smarter than you’d think, even though he handcuffs it with periphery suffering we know will be “solved” (as much as these specific tragedies can be solved). What happens to Howard, though, is always shrouded in darkness because he might be too far gone for this unorthodox jumpstart to work. In fact, his character is more or less pushed to a stronger source of catharsis that ultimately serves as the final hurdle to clear away or forever block his progress. We can imagine his path ending either in relief from acceptance or in suicide, and that unknown draws us closer. The others are distractions—albeit crucial to Loeb’s finale. Their expansiveness may temper my enthusiasm, but they do not deny the film's legitimate success as a whole.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 97 minutes | Release Date: December 16th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): David Frankel
Writer(s): Allan Loeb