Collateral Beauty and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by David Frankel
Is it that time again for Will Smith to try and win that Oscar he’s been so desperately seeking for some time now!? Hey, since DiCaprio got his we need another underdog to root for, and Will Smith is as good a candidate as any. Well… except that HIS Oscar bait films tend to be stuff like Concussion where he’s a boring scientist while Leo jumped off mountains and did massive amounts of drugs trying to get his. This movie, just from the awkward title, doesn’t inspire much hope that The Fresh Prince is ready to put himself out there in something fun and risky to win his Academy Award, but then maybe this movie doesn’t need any of that and is a truly moving film in its own right. We can only hope…
The movie begins with Howard (Will Smith) and Whit (Edward Norton) as two best buddies as the heads of some advertising company that seems to get motivational Howard Speeches on a daily basis. That is… until the tragedy. We jump straight to three years later where Howard has gone from The Fresh to Hancock (well… Hancock without the fun) and is now spending his days building up elaborate domino sets instead of working. Not only that, but he’s so preoccupied with the grief of what happened (it doesn’t take long before we find out his daughter died) that he’s letting the company gone down the tubes financially and can’t even be bothered to sign the company over to Whit as well as Simon (Michael Peña) and Claire (Kate Winslet) who could save the company if Howard would just give them the authority to do so, though I’m not sure what the law is about letting someone literally sit on his ass all day while all his employees are left to watch things crumble. Eventually, our trio of good buddies decide that Howard needs to either lose his fucking mind or get better (it’s never quite clear which one they’re going for) and decide to Christmas Carol his ass using actors (Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, and Helen Mirren) who will play Love, Time, and Death; all three of which are concepts that Howard has been writing letters to as a way of expressing his internal frustration and rage. Will this strange plan to convince Howard he’s seeing his delusions come to life make him deal with his problems, or drive him further into his unhealthy state of mind? Will he eventually seek help from a local support group led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris) which seems like a less risky way for him to deal with his daughter’s death? Seriously, isn’t there like a MILLION ways this plan could go horribly wrong!?
I… can’t hate this movie. A lot of the really bad movies this year have zero respect or understanding of its supposed target audience, and while this is PRETTY bad… it gets its audience at least. It gets its audience SO god damn well that I would almost classify it as pornographic; not just because of how much it fixates on what it’s audience is getting off to, but also in how NOTHING ELSE FUCKING MATTERS HERE (and how it can also be kinda tone deaf). The plot is threadbare, the exposition is out of fucking control, and no one in here acts like a human being despite ostensibly taking place in the real world… sort of, which more or less makes it a tearjerker in the purest form. Pretty much every character gets to have a pretty cry, everyone knows the best thing to say every time, and children are the special perfect little beings that radiate sunshine, happiness, and wonder. Even the one kid who’s supposed to be “mean” to her dad isn’t screaming her lungs out or using foal language that would alienate whoever’s watching. She talks like a forty year old psychiatrist who’s listing out character flaws and expressing her feelings in an articulate manner, yet she’s MAYBE eleven years old. This movie is going to have its audience who are going to love every moment of it, and admittedly there are parts here that I really enjoyed, but it just leaves too much out in terms of story, characterization, and plot, for me to fall in love with the scenarios and the dialogue the way that it wanted me to.
So what works about this? Or more accurately, what worked for ME about this? Once the ball ACTUALLY gets rolling on its premise, I found myself very receptive to the completely insane plan that Howard’s friends have hatched and was interested in seeing how it played out. I’m no psychologist so I couldn’t tell you if this kind of approach to dealing with grief is more traumatizing than it is helpful, but the movie never really came across as saying this is definitively the best way to deal with his because it makes abundantly clear the personal biases and flaws of everyone involved as well as how much they genuinely cared for Howard. When we DO get the scenes where our three actors confront him, they just feel very… real I guess. Sure, the dialogue is still really flowery, but at least on the part of the actors… well they ARE actors in this world and we saw them rehearsing and getting into character which helps us buy what they end up saying, and I’ll even go so far as to excuse Will Smith being so eloquent in his rebuttals because I imagine he’s been bottling this stuff up for three years now and now has a chance to spew forth his grievances against those he perceives as his enemies. That, and Helen Mirren is just wonderful in all things and completely RELISHES in her role here. Hell she’s pretty much the only one having any fun here along with Jacob Latimore, so obviously those two stand out from all the other sad mother fuckers we have to watch!
Everything else though is just window dressing and the movie feels completely weightless whenever it’s not about that specific premise. Most of the characters in here aren’t playing actors in the movie, yet everyone sounds like they’re reading lines off a script which… well they ARE, but you’re not supposed to tell this easily. Everyone’s dialogue is witty and full of prose about love and the universe and it’s always the most PERFECTLY insightful observation for any given situation that it all becomes meaningless and impossible to buy any scene as two people having a conversation. Not only that, but this movie uses exposition like a crutch and we are constantly HEARING about things and getting backstory instead of SEEING it or getting a real feel for the situation. Now I guess this is all there to make room for what the audience REALLY wants to see which is beautiful people having beautiful cries about beautiful children and beautiful moments full of beautiful sorrow and beautiful music, but what they were ultimately indulging in (tragedy porn) just didn’t really appeal to me which is why the flaws and lightweight story were so readily apparent.
Now of course there’s the elephant in the room here which I’m far from the most qualified to talk about, but is important to at least bring up. The film is essentially about Gaslighting someone which is an abusive tactic to make a victim question their own sanity and the makes no bones about this despite its insistence that this is all in Howard’s own best interest. I’m having trouble getting an exact idea of what the movie is even trying to say as it never really commits to anything for too long, but I guess you can boil it down to the Howard’s friends having two separate (and diametrically opposed) objectives for employing this tactic. The first is that they want to help him get past his grief, and the other is that they want to declare him unfit to still be the head of the company. Let’s start with their first reason which is to help him. Once again, I’m not a psychologist so I have no idea if what they are trying to do here would ACTUALLY help anyone deal with their problems, yet the movie implies that it does in this instance. Can I buy into the story enough to say this ONE TIME these flawed people tired something crazy and it actually worked? Yes. There are plenty of things that I will buy in entertainment that would be horrifying to try and put into practice in the real world, so I could suspend my disbelief for THIS movie in THIS instance. However, the movie’s ending (which we’ll get to later) tries to put a sense of… authority behind this harebrained scheme which pretty much makes the argument that THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA rather than THIS SKETCHY IDEA WORKED IN THIS ONE CASE, and I feel they overstepped it there. This shouldn’t be a message movie, but the stupid way it ends tries to imply that it’s providing some sort of cosmic truth which is far outside of what this film should be striving for and it makes things THAT much more uncomfortable.
Now let’s talk about the other goal that Howard’s friends are trying to accomplish (i.e. what those who Gaslight in the real world are trying to do) which is to convince someone they are crazy. Specifically here, they want him to be shown as mentally incompetent so they can take his shares of the company and keep it afloat. Now this is some straight up evil they’re talking about here and the film TRIES to show it as a reprehensible act, but my big question is why the hell it’s in here in the first place. I don’t know the law all that well, but the guy has been in a comatose state for three years and the company is about to go under. I don’t think they needed to go so far as to GASLIGHT AND FALSIFY EVIDENCE in order to either oust him from the company or at least take over some of his responsibilities until he gets better. The movie TRIES to chicken out on this at the end with the characters REALIZING HOW AWFUL THEY WERE BEING, but then it has Howard give them a pass for faking all this and trying to drive him to a very dark place by telling him that he’s seeing things that aren’t there. Look, I’ve never been in the position Howard was in this movie or in the position that any other victim of Gaslighting has been in, so this is all coming from a place of privilege which means my opinion on this part should be taken with a massive grain of salt. If they had JUST focused on helping Howard and didn’t even bother with the company stuff, this could have worked; even as a cautionary tale about how NOT to help someone or how to fail as a support network. As it stands, there’s just too much they mishandle with a topic this sensitive for it to work at all for the movie.
So I guess all that leaves us to talk about is the ending. I’ll do my best not to spoil it, but the movie essentially has two twists at the end; one I will refer to as the Howard Twist as it pertains to Howard’s story, and the other I will refer to as the Movie Twist as it pertains to our understanding of the film itself. Now a good twist can REALLY bump up a mediocre movie, which this most certainly is, and fortunately the Howard Twist is just that. It ends up providing context for some of the flaws that I had in here which doesn’t quite EXCUSE those flaws (you need to ADD something if you take something else out to save for the ending), but it certainly helps to understand why they were there in the first place. That other twist though… Look, this movie isn’t A Winter’s Tale or any other legendarily bad high concept romance or drama, but the Movie Twist is god damn stupid. Where the Howard Twist filled in the gaps in this tory and brought everything around full circle for his character (even if the story still suffers for so much being reliant on the payoff), this one feels like a really lame excuse to hand wave the other flaws in this movie and is… well, it’s fucking hilarious. Now because this LITERALLY comes at the last minute, I don’t it’s going to become a cult hit like Winter’s Tale was simply because the way the movie teases it isn’t all that interesting for what the twist ultimately reveals, but the bald face sincerity with which this movie presents itself as well as the silliness of its big GOTCHA moment is at least going to make this a movie of some note like Remember Me and Safe Haven are because of the way they ended.
Look, I love some crappy movies out there that manage to do one thing well enough to compensate for the rest of the movies flaws. I can at least recognize that this film does that for the target audience and I at least managed to find some things to enjoy; both sincerely and ironically. It’s still not something I could ever reasonably recommend to anyone (even as a SO BAD IT’S GOOD film), but it’s not one of the worst of the years. Maybe for some it is because of its shockingly tone-deaf premise, but I just couldn’t be bothered to care about anything that happened in here. Can someone just give Will Smith his Oscar so he can stop making these movies? I don’t think he’s gonna go down the Leo route and fight a fucking bear to get his. So we might as well just get it over with.
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