Review: Collateral Beauty (2016)


Will Smith makes his yearly play for an Oscar in this Christmas film about how badly a father’s grief can inconvenience his co-workers.

Grief and heartache have been a cornerstone in Christmas films for as long as Hollywood was around. From every variation of adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to Frank Capra’s holiday touchstone It’s A Wonderful Life; the holidays are portrayed as a time of reflection and to refocus on what matters.

Now, for a moment, imagine Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. But instead of a guardian angel named Clarence to show George he matters to the people of Bedford Falls, Clarence was an actor that Mary and Uncle Billy hired to jump in the river and show him around to the folks in town play acting how important George was with some of the money they rallied from the town. Wouldn’t that feel pretty silly and kind of patronizing?

Now imagine a film where a father lost his daughter in a prolonged and painful way and his marriage in the process; but where he’s too shell-shocked to take leave from work and his employees half-heartedly nag him about it, mainly because its inconveniencing the business. Rather than stage an intervention; they hire actors to play on his grief so he can be found mentally incompetent and they can sell the company to keep their jobs. But they mean well; really, it’s not coming from a bad place – AT ALL!

That’s largely the problem with Collateral Beauty, a movie that feels pretty hollow at its core because of its bizarre premise and odd twists regarding a very real loss in Smith’s life that the film treats as a B-plot — because it is. Smith, despite his prominence in the film’s marketing is not the film’s protagonist, he’s the macguffin that gets the plot rolling. The film’s leads (Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Michael Pena) are the three co-workers who are gaslighting Smith’s character to get him to sell the company.

Smith plays Howard, a brand evangelist for an advertising company he co-founded with Norton’s character Whit. The film opens with Smith making a pitch to his employees that people only are driven by three forces in the world — Time, Life, and Death. These forces motivate their lives, purchases, wants and drives. Queue to 3 years later. Smith – visibly aged – sets up dominoes over the course of weeks to knock them down. The company is in freefall; because all their clients have been won over by Howard’s charisma and Howard is a catatonic husk of a man. White intimates to the other 2 partners in the company, Pena’s Simon and Winslet’s Claire that they have received a buyout offer that will make them all set for life. However, Howard won’t meet with him to sell. Along the way, White meets an aspiring actress named Amy (Keira Knightley) who is auditioning for a campaign at their company. She bewitches White, and he follows Amy to a derelict theater where Amy is practicing for a show with Helen Mirren’s Brigette and Jacob Lattimore’s Raffi. Here, Whit is so captivated by their performance that he pitches the actors and Simon and Claire his grand idea. He’s hired a PI (played by Compliance’s Ann Dowd) who has followed Howard and stolen his mail to find Howard is so angry with the universe that he wrote letters to Time, Love and Death to protest his lot in life. Claire stole the letters and Whit suggests that Raffi, Brigette, and Amy play Time, Love and Death to get footage of Howard confronting them and they can find him incompetent.

On any level, this would make Whit, a lecherous Don Draper-alike who also has a distant relationship with his daughter, the villain. However, the film expects us to empathize with Whit, as Amy is there to help him realize he can fix his relationship with his daughter. Simon and Claire also have personal issues that Raffi and Brigitte in their guises as Time and Death help them achieve. Their struggles constitute the A plot of the film and the film’s tone and the actor’s behind these performances are there to show us they grow throughout the film.

But the film mainly doesn’t work because of tone. Smith gives a very real performance throughout; he’s in an entirely different movie altogether, one where a suicide is a very real option for his inability to process his grief and move forward. Smith’s interactions with these embodiments of his pathos are the most intense scenes in the film. Smith gives us a moving picture of grief; of someone so consumed by his inability to let go that he’s become a stranger to everyone who has ever cared for him. That’s fine, but the rest of the film is mainly concerned with Smith’s co-workers feeling bad about feeling bad for putting him through this catharsis. It’s First World Problems the movie.


Ultimately, the film elicits tears and sentiment because of Smith’s strong performance. But the underlying story and characters just don’t work. Making the audience sympathize with basic people doing something cruel to avoid confrontation is something that belongs in a sitcom. The movie’s inability to define itself as a drama or a dramedy steeped in magical realism is a cop out. Director David Frankel, who has flirted with grief porn before with movies like Marley & Me, succeeds at constructing a movie whose sole intent is getting the audience to weep at sentiment, rather than one demonstrating real growth or acceptance amongst its protagonists.