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

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…

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.

Why are you painting my house?

mother!
(SPOILERS) Darren Aronofsky has a reasonably-sized chin, but on this evidence, in no time at all he’ll have reduced it to a forlorn stump with all that stroking. And then set the remains alight. And then summoned it back into existence for a whole new round of stroking. mother! is a self-indulgent exercise in unabated tedium in the name of a BIG idea, one no amount of assertive psued-ing post-the-fact can turn into a masterpiece. Yes, that much-noted “F” cinemascore was well warranted.

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine (1983)
(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It (2017)
(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the hor…

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

Don't worry about Steed, ducky. I'll see he doesn't suffer.

The Avengers 4.11: Two’s A Crowd
Oh, look. Another Steed doppelganger episode. Or is it? One might be similarly less than complimentary about Warren Mitchell dusting off his bungling Russian agent/ambassador routine (it obviously went down a storm with the producers; he previously played Keller in The Charmers and Brodny would return in The See-Through Man). Two’s A Crowd coasts on the charm of its leads and supporting performances (including Julian Glover), but it’s middling fare at best.

Let the monsters kill each other.

Game of Thrones Season Seven
(SPOILERS) Column inches devoted to Game of Thrones, even in “respectable” publications, seems to increase exponentially with each new season, so may well reach critical mass with the final run. Groundswells of opinion duly become more evident, and as happens with many a show by somewhere around this point, if not a couple of years prior, Season Seven has seen many of the faithful turn on once hallowed storytelling, and at least in part, there’s good reason for that.

Some suggest the show has jumped the shark (or crashed the Wall); there were concerns over how much the pace increased last year, divested as it was of George RR Martin’s novels as a direct source, but this year’s succession of events make Six seem positively sluggish. I don’t think GoT has suddenly, resoundingly, lost it, and I’d argue there did need to be an increase in momentum (people are quick to forget how much moaning went on about seemingly nothing happening for long stretches of previ…

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…