If anyone wants to sell a spec script to Will Smith, I think I’ve cracked the formula: Take a saccharine premise that allows him to be stoically noble in the face of tragedy, plug in some half-baked peripheral characters hitting unearned emotional beats and tack on a contrived happy ending. The details don’t matter so much, just as long as it’s at least as melodramatic as The Pursuit of Happyness or Seven Pounds and offers plenty of opportunities for Smith to indulge in his late-period proclivity for eyebrow acting. If anyone’s been dying to watch the Fresh Prince grimace for an hour and a half, your Christmas present has come early.
For those of you wondering what the title Collateral Beauty refers to, don’t worry. The film will let you know with a five-minute sequence in which the phrase is repeated half a dozen times without providing any real clarification. It’s almost as though screenwriter Allan Loeb was under the misguided impression that reiteration would render his euphemism significant — while, in fact, it only makes the whole thing seem significantly stupider. Loeb, the “writer” previously responsible for bringing to the screen a Kevin James MMA movie no one wanted (Here Comes the Boom) and the Miley Cyrus-Jeremy Piven team-up that less than no one wanted (So Undercover), deserves to be singled out because his script is an insult to anyone who has ever put one word next to another in an attempt convey meaning.
Loeb’s idea of a high-concept script is to shoehorn some tepid new-age navel-gazing into a pretentious, soulless retread of A Christmas Carol populated exclusively by unlikable one-note characters. Smith plays Howard, a grieving dad whose work has suffered following the death of his young daughter. Howard’s “friends” from work (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña), concerned their cushy jobs and luxuriant Manhattanite lifestyles are at risk, hire a private investigator to dig up some dirt on their bereaved boss. Upon discovering Howard has written hate mail to Love, Death and Time, they concoct a ruse to have him declared legally incompetent so they can take control of his successful advertising firm. To this end, they hire three actors (Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore) to personify the natural forces who have drawn Howard’s ire — all in the hope of documenting his increasing kookiness by instigating confrontations and then editing the actors out. To say this overcomplicated scheme doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense would be a severe understatement.
The plot’s inherent absurdity aside, the film falters on the basis of its shallow characterization and utterly ridiculous narrative implausibility. Aside from the fact that their ploy to abscond with their friend’s livelihood makes them terrible people, Howard’s circle of associates have put into motion one of the most harebrained efforts to gaslight a character in the history of cinema. Incidentally, the film’s blunt attempt to explain its conceit by delineating the etymology of the verb “gaslight” made me wish someone had undertaken a similar conversation with Loeb regarding the term “lampshading.” Each character has exactly one motivating factor and approximately two defining characteristics, give or take. Norton wants to reconcile with his estranged daughter (kind of?). Winslet wants a baby. Peña wants to know his family will be cared for after his impending death. The actors played by Mirren, Knightley and Latimore don’t seem to want much more than to be paid for acting. This does not make for compelling dramatic conflict. While the cast’s performances are generally competent, they’re also uniformly uninspired and underwhelming, but that’s probably the best that can be expected given the material they’re working with.
Little needs to be said of Collateral Beauty other than it’s a blatant case of Xmas exploitation, pure and simple. The fact that such a talented cast signed on for this sort of project is something of a mystery, but the film’s intentions cannot be called into question. While emotionally manipulative mawkishness can occasionally be affective — especially during the holiday season — this film provides ample evidence of the inverse. I was concerned I was being too tough on a movie which might have some hidden appeal I hadn’t quite grasped, but that was before one of the worst stabs at a twist ending I’ve ever seen reaffirmed my suspicion that this is, in fact, a terrible film. At one point, Smith’s Howard opines, “There’s no such thing as collateral beauty.” I only wish that were the case. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, Flat Rock Cinema.