Collateral Beauty Is Not Quite the Enchanting Christmas Movie It Wants to Be

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Going into the holiday season, Collateral Beauty was a big question mark on a lot of people’s minds.  It had a stellar cast — including Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly and Naomi Harris — with a meaty-on-paper role for its lead that could potentially land him his long overdue Oscar.  It had the kind of magical realism that made Stranger than Fiction and Ruby Sparks such delightful, and frequently rewatched, movies in my library.

Then the trailer hit, and virtually all hope for it was dropped.  Even if it would clearly not be Will Smith’s fast-track to the Oscars, it could still be a fun holiday drama with some delightful performances by an exceptionally talented group of actors.

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Having finally seen the movie, I sadly must report that it really isn’t.  It’s a fine enough movie, to be sure, just not a “good” one, let alone “great” or “memorable.”  This won’t be joining Stranger than Fiction on my living room shelf.  This won’t be getting popped in alongside Ruby Sparks anytime soon.

While the film ultimately reveals what the trailers make obvious from the outset — that the cosmic forces of Death, Time and Love have come to a man in profound pain to encourage him to start living again in earnest — it wants you to believe for nearly ninety minutes that they’re just actors hired by his friends to confront the man in public.  If it jolts him back into caring about life again, that’s fine.  If not, then at least they can tape it, digitally edit out the actors and use it as evidence in a competency hearing to gain the voting rights to his controlling shares in their company.

Merry Christmas to you too.

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The idea is that Death, Time and Love are working overtime: encouraging his coworkers to reengage in the same way that they are encouraging Will Smith’s character to.  Death encourages Simon to tell his wife that he’s fighting a losing battle with cancer.  Time tells Claire to adopt as she mourns having aged out of being able to bear her own children.  Love demands that Whit be more asserting with his estranged daughter, who wants nothing to do with him after his infidelities caused her mother to divorce him.

It’s a charming idea, but the emphasis on Death, Time and Love as actors playing a part — for the low, low price of $20,000 each — muddles with the emotional core of the universe reaching out to a single man in profound emotional agony.  The pure motivations of this man’s friends trying to jolt him out of his three-year funk with some radically unorthodox therapy are sullied by their baser economic concerns.  The movie can’t seem to make its mind up about what it’s trying to be, and awkwardly tries to split the difference with a not-so-dramatic reveal at the end of the movie that they were really abstract forces of the universe the whole time.

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Beyond the fluctuating literalness of the cosmic forces, the film suffers notably from failing to give us an early look into Smith’s life with his daughter.  The emotional core of the film rests squarely on its ability to make us sympathize with this shattered man, something that I found difficult because we never actually see him as a father.  Sure, we see him giving an enthusiastic speech on the importance of Love, Death and Time, but we never see him play with his daughter, or hold her in his arms, or interact with her in any capacity.

I understand why.  If we had seen his pre-crisis life we would have been spoiled to the film’s climactic twist ending.  The problem is that the ending is telegraphed halfway through the movie and is not as emotionally impactful as the filmmakers evidently think it is.

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The dominoes — seen in everything from its trailer to its title card — make a beautiful visual metaphor for Smith’s character’s state of mind.  He’s a man whose built himself up his entire life, only to find everything crashing down around him after his six-year-old daughter dies.  The structures that he’s able to make are genuinely breathtaking and their collapse is beyond cool, but the fact that he builds and destroys them with such regularity diminishes the impact it could have had in the narrative.  His latest took him only five days to make and as soon as it falls, he starts another one.

Imagine if he had obsessively built it bigger and bigger over the course of the film, only to finally let it tumble down when he accepts the lessons that Love, Death and Time have to teach him.  It would have been a striking visual that symbolically closed off his mourning, rather than something that happens a few different times throughout the movie.

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Although this will doubtlessly appeal to a certain subset of movie-goers, I can’t see too many people falling for this competently acted, sloppily written drama.  It gives a decent tug at the heartstrings for an hour and a half, but little else.  If this movie interests you at all, wait for it to come out on DVD, because it is not worth the price of admission.

Rating:  3/5

Buy on BluRay:  Save your money for something better

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