ZERO STARS/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras F
starring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren
written by Allan Loeb
directed by David Frankel
by Walter Chaw Collateral Beauty is the conversation you had that one time with the stupidest person you've ever met, in that it's so stupid it poses an existential problem for you. It happened to me once when, as a bartender, one of the waitresses asked me with concern how she could transform the Coke float she'd ordered into the Sprite float the customer had ordered. I didn't know. I still don't. And not having the answer to a question posed by the stupidest person you've ever met is horrifying. It's like you come home one day and your guinea pig greets you with a zen kōan. It's Kafka's great unwritten tale. It's Collateral Beauty: a question with no answer posed by the stupidest movie ever made. Really, the only solution is to dump it out and start from scratch. Collateral Beauty is about grief, sort of, and gaslighting, and it's shot like a visit to Whole Foods in the sense that it's burnished with a classy patina and full of pretty people you'd like to be. Then you get to the checkout lane and it's too much but you're too embarrassed to put anything back. Also the food tastes like ass.
Howard (Will Smith) is the managing partner of an ad agency whose six-year-old daughter has died of something RARE, making him so depressed he refuses to speak or do anything that would constitute work. Because his co-partners and direct reports worry their stakes in the company will plummet or some shit, they band together and hire a small troupe of struggling actors to embody Time, Death, and Love to force Howard, who has been writing self-aggrandizing letters to said abstracts, to re-engage with the world and sign over a Power of Attorney. This is a pretty great set-up, you'll agree--for a Very Bad Things-style morality play about terrible people doing terrible things for selfish reasons and getting terribly smote by karma as a result. That doesn't happen, alas. Collateral Beauty's approach is more Love Actually than The Ladykillers. Did I mention that Howard's buddies, Claire (Kate Winslet), Whit (Edward Norton) and Simon (Michael Peña), plot to secretly film Howard yelling at the actors trying to make him even more insane in order to force Howard to hand over his shares in the company? Absorb all of this. Now regurgitate it as a warm, fetid mash--a half-masticated, mostly-digested, Patch Adams-y exploitation tearjerker. Yes, Collateral Beauty is dog mess. The poor thing couldn't make it to the slider in time.
I would like to tell you at this point that the movie has two twist endings, possibly three or four--I'm not sure because I don't understand what happens in Collateral Beauty. Howard acquires a love interest (Naomie Harris), Fight Club-like, through a support group, and she is given the unenviable narrative task of defining "collateral beauty" with all the grasp on those words that Rick Springfield has on "moot" in "Jessie's Girl." Later, it's revealed that this love interest is Someone. Almost simultaneously, her explanation of the title turns out to have a connection to Someone Else. Playing Death, Love, and Time are Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore, respectively; if the film were the teensiest bit clever, it would switch Love and Death around and hire a real actor to be Time. I once turned down an opportunity to have a picture taken with Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. For similar reasons, Jacob Latimore should consider not starring in a movie with actors. Here's the thing, the final twist of the film suggests that having succeeded (or failed, I don't know) in gaslighting Howard, Collateral Beauty is now going to try to gaslight the audience. Luckily for the audience, there wasn't much of an audience.
Understand that Collateral Beauty fucked me up. It's so unbelievably poor by any possible measure of quality that it disturbs one's understanding of things. It's an extinction-level event. It's a Trump presidency. I mean, you theoretically know there are movies like Tiptoes, but you don't expect them to open in 3000 theatres. It's not just that the dialogue (by the wordsmith who wrote Things We Lost in the Fire and So Undercover) is unspeakably bathetic, it's that the sadistic premise is presented with such wide-eyed wonder that it challenges you to do some mental gymnastics to sort through the mixed signals. It's an insurance commercial about genocide. It's someone saying "yes" while shaking their head back and forth. It's hard to do, harder still to suss. I want to be specific, but I kind of want you to watch it for yourself. In its way, it's the best horror film in a decade of great horror films, because there are real lessons to be learned by it. Read it as a race parable wherein a wealthy, successful, beloved black man is robbed of everything--family, status, finally money--by his "friends," who would like to profit from his success, but will settle for profiting from his misfortune. Read it as a withering critique of consumerism (its spiritual brother is Jingle All the Way) where in order to maintain a certain lifestyle of privilege, otherwise everyday-insufferable people become monstrous--and yet...and yet, the heroes of this little psychodrama somehow exist in a cultural context that forgives them any trespass. The punchline of the film should've been the scene where the Ghosts of Christmas Prissy (Claire), Patsy (Whit), and Pathetic (Simon, who has a deadly cancer for some reason) are revealed to have Munchausen-by-Proxied Howard's sainted daughter with mercury and laudanum.
Ultimately, and with the most profit, read Collateral Beauty as a film about Will Smith's career as first the black guy everyone could agree on, then the biggest box-office draw in the land and producer of a few genuinely-progressive films, and now an object of pity and sometimes ridicule ("Tell the TROOF!") off whose corpse the vultures have lighted to feed. Consider the climactic sequence in which all the stealth cell-phone footage gathered by his mates of his screaming at the actors they've hired shows up in a boardroom before a team of lawyers, doctored so that our trio of merry thespians have been magically Photoshopped out of every frame. Obliquely, screenwriter Allan Loeb, in the sole special feature on the sad Blu-ray release, addresses this science-fiction by saying that many people will probably think the film is unlikely but, brace yourself, it doesn't matter, since it's a fable. The fair question to ask, though, is what it's a fable of. Near as I can tell, Collateral Beauty is a cautionary tale about what happens when a bunch of deluded, detached, well-intended, unimaginably-wealthy liberal fuckwits get together to lament the difficulty of their lives. It's overwritten in the same way a high-school kid's suicide note tends to be, expressing hormonal imbalance as some sort of weltschmerz. That everyone involved appears to have thought the movie was about grief--as opposed to the exploitation of grief to excuse callous opportunism--is the greatest gaslight of all. I've seen worse films than Collateral Beauty, though not many. It's "uncanny" in the base sense of the word: it's something familiar that is not familiar. If you don't treat it with revulsion, there's reason to worry about you.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings Collateral Beauty home to Blu-ray in a gorgeous, glassy 2.38:1, 1080p transfer that presents a New York so richly-saturated in warm tones that the contrast with the essential coldness at the movie's centre is heart-attack jarring. Showcasing state-of-the-art digital filmmaking, the image is beautiful beyond reproach. Less stunning by virtue of having no reason to be, the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track offers everything at a "classy" remove that complements the elegant visual palette. It's a particular shame that an obviously generous amount of money and craft were afforded to the technical elements of what is essentially an evil film with an "uplifting" and "whimsical, even" twist ending in which we discover that, yo-HO, they weren't actors at all! This despite the fact that the angels of these better intimations of immortality have no problem pocketing envelopes of ill-gotten cash. Jesus wept. You really have to pick a lane, you guys.
The lone special feature, aside from a startup trailer for the upcoming Wonder Woman (which is--here's a prediction for you--going to be balls), is a 15-minute junket-reel called "A Modern Fable: Discovering Collateral Beauty" (HD) that is fascinating for the level of carefully-cultivated cluelessness on display. It's the worst example of such since Maria Bello, in the special features for The Jane Austen Book Club, said with a straight face that Robin Swicord is the best director she's ever worked with. (She had, at that point, appeared in films directed by John Sayles, Oliver Stone, and David Cronenberg.) The best part is writer Loeb's gobsmacked pronouncements of how this is a modern fairytale and it doesn't matter how nothing makes sense while not also explaining why it is that most of his excrescent dialogue is dedicated to trying to explain how it all makes sense. Don't you see? It's about seeing collateral beauty...that is, beauty that is the result of tragedy. Wait, no--the victim of tragedy? The offshoot of tragedy? Right, that's right. Look, never mind, it doesn't matter. An Ultraviolet copy of the film is included with the disc.