Love, time, and death. The three abstractions that connect every human being on Earth, according to ad exec Howard (Will Smith) in a rousing speech to his colleagues. Three years later, Howard returns to work after the death of his six year old daughter. Cue domino tower cascade.
Howard, in his grief, sends letters to ideas: love, time, and death. He has, for all intents and purposes, an eccentric depression. The type of depression that is light enough to put on screen because it is quirky and not, well, too depressing (compare this to the other quirky depression narrative Demolition from earlier this year).
The friends and co-workers in Howard’s life (Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Michael Pena) want to prove his insanity to save their jobs. In very Christmas Carol fashion, human representations of Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Lattimore), and Death (Helen Mirren) come to show Howard and his friends what they are worth. Except, these personifications are really hired actors doing their best to play the part for the sake of Howard’s well being. Kind of.
The setup of Collateral Beauty is intriguing. It establishes the surrounding characters while keeping the A-list draw of the film at bay. Smith says all of three lines in the first half hour of the film, and it is a bold narrative move that pays off.
Instead of focusing on Smith at first, Allen Loeb’s script pairs supporting characters together to expand their individual stories. While this tactic involves setting up obvious dangling causes, thereby serving a simple narrative function, it is an effective way of setting up multiple threads that promise to unravel into emotionally powerful revelations.
Which brings us to this: CineFiles isn’t often keen on melodrama. Even when a film is not trying to hide that it is a melodrama, it can come off as, well, melodramatic. Collateral Beauty is a melodrama, and it does not try to hide it. And while it does get emotionally overwrought at times, particularly at the climax when the aforementioned threads unravel, it is not a bad film.
It is, however, a flawed film.
The film’s script is often too on the nose. The emotional trajectories are unsurprising and in some cases overblown. But there is enjoyment to be had in the stacked ensemble cast. There are too many top notch actors in play to get a full sense of any one of their characters, save for Smith, leaving something to be desired. Still, there are moments where the likes of Norton, Mirren, and Knightley shine.
Collateral Beauty is, in its attempt at being profound, something much less. A pair of reveals in the final act, for one, do not feel unexpected. They also do not add to the attempted emotional impact. If anything it detracts from this, muddying the film’s denouement with a button that feels obligatory in spite of the already acceptable conclusion. Slick production design and strong performances are perhaps enough to salvage this superficial narrative that unspools into an ending that tries too hard to be an ending. Yet one walks away from the film noticeably underwhelmed.
Collateral Beauty: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)