Skip to main content

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.


The last time Smith ventured into such bare-faced, turgidly manipulative and indulgent territory was Seven Pounds, a truly dreadful movie, possibly the nadir of his career (like Bruce Willis before him, he seems content to leave fallow his greatest natural skill as a performer: making people laugh). He fared better with the flagrantly aspirant The Pursuit of Happyness. This falls somewhere in between. While it isn’t dead set on charting a course of personal grief-porn to its tragic end, it is nauseatingly keen to spoon out the life-affirming platitudes. Somehow, the movie attracted an all-star cast, which adds to my ponderance that Frankel’s tin eye deserves to cop some of the flack, albeit Allan Loeb has a track record for shiny, exec-luring premises as well as soggy emotional uplift.


Loeb isn’t making matters easy in the sympathy stakes off the bat, asking us to invest in the survival of that most unworthy of industries, advertising. He might as well have Smith’s Howard Inlet (Inlet?) presiding over a collapsing bank and expect us not to cheer on its demise. We’re told, in all seriousness (as far as I could divine) “Advertising is about illuminating how our products and services will improve people’s lives”. And there I was, thinking it was about brainwashing people into buying things they don’t need or even want in the name of the god that is materialism.


Alas, poor Howard suffers a terrible tragedy soon after, losing his daughter. You can tell this has a terrible effect on him as he turns all grey and stubbly, taking to setting up ridiculously expansive domino arrangements that he then topples, to the accompaniment of a heartstring-pulling soundtrack. Howard has also taken to sending symbolic letters to Love, Time and Death, berating them for putting him through the same grindler they put most people on the planet through at some point. This is, after all, a Hollywood movie, where people do and feel things in an alternate reality, so sending letters to abstract forces is the kind of thing that gets applauded as a red-hot idea and even encourages bidding wars. Did I mention it’s set at Christmas? How could it fail?


Probing tomes on Howard’s writing desk such as The Hidden Reality and Journey of the Souls suggest a philosophical underpinning to Collateral Beauty that simply doesn’t exist. One assumes Loeb either read the blurbs and decided “Nah” or Frankel’s prop department were far more enlightened than those calling the shots. There’s a point where I thought the picture might be promoting the idea of equivocal perceptions of reality – when Whit (Edward Norton, in an entirely thankless part) notes that his relationship with his mentally-ailing mother improved when he stopped trying to “force your reality onto her, and just go into her reality”, that no one person’s is any more valid than another’s – but it isn’t doing that either.


Rather, Loeb is serving up gloopy portions of schmaltz with zero attentiveness to shame and decency. Before Whit comes up with the deranged scheme of hiring actors to play Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley) and Time (Jacob Latimore), in order to have Howard pronounced mentally unfit when they are digitally erased from recorded footage, leaving him talking to air (likely as not to push him completely over the edge, resulting in him going mad or killing himself, should he buy into it at all), he comments that they tried everything: grief counsellors, ayahuasca and interventions. The middle one’s supposed to be a gag, but Frankel, who previously savaged eyeballs with Marley & Me, fumbles pretty much every would-be witty line, just as he torpedoes the emotional ones.


Lest you think this is all about Will, he actually has no more screen time (admittedly, I didn’t do any precise calculations) than his co-workers, Whit, Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena), who have maudlin trials of their own to face. Actually, that’s unfair. Whit and Claire have really ropey trials – he, as a philanderer whose daughter has rejected him, must reconnect; she is facing having missed out on motherhood – but Simon’s is rather affecting, so much so that it ought to have merited Howard receiving a good slap for being so self-indulgent while one of his friends is dying from cancer. When Brigitte/Death tells Simon, who has kept the prognosis from his family, “You are not dying right. You’re not helping them”, it’s one of the few lines in the screenplay that land, although the credit is largely due to Mirren and Pena. Other lines, like the gibberish “There is no such thing as collateral beauty” fail to amount to anything even when they’re laboriously explained.


The reveal (although it’s heavily signposted from their first scene) that the actors actually are these universal forces is presumably supposed to make the deception of Howard all right (and anyway, pains have been made to make it clear that, even though what they’re doing is entirely motivated by money, Whit, Claire and Simon really do care about their boss/partner). Being charitable, I might allow that something could be done with an idea like this – minus the nefarious colleagues –  given a poetic makeover by, say, Wim Wenders, rather than engineered by someone whose fall-back for any given emotional outpouring is the a music montage.


I doubt the misconceived twist that Howard’s grief support group counsellor (Naomie Harris) is, in fact, his wife could have worked with anyone, though, since it requires a switch of levers; it’s an intellectual device, a “clever” plot thing, rather than providing a cathartic moment. Still, it appears to do the trick as far as waking Will up is concerned, and he isn’t even consequently pissed off at his unscrupulous fellow workers.


You wonder, with a movie like this, if it might be some sort of test designed to register the limits of what audiences find morally acceptable. That, in an “ends justify the means” sense, all manner of objectionable behaviour gets the tacit nod of approval. If so, it’s just as well it flopped. As such, that my rating isn’t lower reflects that I found Collateral Beauty morbidly diverting, fascinating for the depths to which it is willing to stoop.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…