Trailers aren’t always accurate depictions of what happens in a film. Sometimes that’s by design: Deadpool, for example, used its trailers more to sell the tone of the film than the story, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens, worked to keep its story shrouded in as much secrecy as possible. Sometimes, though, that design is to disguise a plot that’s so abhorrent, it’s a wonder how a film got made, let alone attracted a high-profile cast. There’s really no other way to explain the tonal dissonance between the schlocky schmaltz suggested by the trailer for Collateral Beauty and the abomination that is the actual plot.
Warning: you might consider the plot description below to be a spoiler. Considering this isn’t a final act twist, but something revealed in the first 20 minutes, I’m going to describe it. And yes, this is the actual plot of the film.
Howard Inlet (Will Smith) is an advertising guru whose personal and professional lives came to a halt a few years earlier when his young daughter died. Howard is still mired in grief, only going into the offices of the Manhattan ad agency where he’s the majority shareholder to build intricate structures out of dominoes, and going home to an unfurnished apartment, while occasionally lingering outside of the window to a support group for grieving parents.
Without Howard’s input, the company is in dire straits. After hiring a private investigator (Ann Dowd) who breaks into a mailbox to get three letters Howard’s written to Death, Time, and Love, minority partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) decide to get control of the company by hiring a trio of struggling actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore) to personify the concepts and interact with Howard – in public, where the investigator will film the interactions, then scrub out the actors to make it appear that Howard is mentally unstable.
Yes. That is the core premise of this film.
What’s more, each of the minority partners is paired off with one of the actors, and conveniently they learn how the “abstraction” assigned to each actor is necessary for the particular partner as well: Whit has lost the respect of his daughter after cheating on his ex-wife, Claire wants to have a baby, and Simon is terminally ill. Meanwhile, Howard’s interactions finally spur him to go into grief counseling, where the leader of the group (Naomie Harris) tries to get Howard to open up about his loss.
There are a number of “twists” that come in the film’s climax that, depending on the audience member, will either be a shock or seen coming a mile away. Maybe I’m too cynical for this, but I saw every twist coming. The only thing that shocked me was hearing legitimate gasps from the audience for my screening.
Let’s be clear: Collateral Beauty is an absolute atrocity that assumes its psychobabble approximates legitimate concepts. And that’s not even getting into the issues involving how these characters treat depression. The inspiration for this scheme comes from Whit’s interactions with his mother, who after suffering a stroke, began randomly saying whatever unbelievable concept came to her mind. Whit eventually found it easier to go along with whatever she said than to try and correct her. Because his relationship with his mother is easier for him now, he decides to apply the exact same thing to Howard, and go in on his communiques with death, time and love. Because a stroke and depression are the same thing. Except they’re not.
Oh, and the meaning of the title? It’s explained in the film…but not really. It’s uttered a few times, with some emphasis thrown in, but it’s just there.
I don’t know how this film managed to wrangle together the cast that it did, and that cast is talented enough to not make the film completely unwatchable. That’s where the single star in the rating comes from. But damn, this film is awful. It’s being pitched as something sickeningly sweet, but it’s not even that. It’s horrific, and the worst thing is knowing that there are people who will watch this and think what’s done in this film is okay. It’s not. It. Is. NOT.