Tis the season and that means cinemas are soon to be flooded with Dickensian tales of heartbreak and redemption. Collateral Beauty, the latest holiday offering, teams director David Frankel (Marley & Me) and writer Allan Loeb (The Space Between Us) with the superstar power of Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Hellen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Naomie Harris to tell the story of Howard Inlet – a man who’s retreated from the world after losing his daughter. Between the creative team, the cast, and the narrative concept, Collateral Beauty appears to be a guaranteed one-two punch at the box office, as it encourages audiences to see the holistic nature of life; to see the interconnectedness in all things. This wonderful sentiment sets up a gloriously powerful premise which makes it markedly disappointing that the sum of Collateral Beauty is significantly weaker than its parts.
Beloved advertising exec Howard Inlet (Will Smith) finds his world turned upside down when his six-year old daughter dies from a rare illness. Turning despondent in his grief, Howard withdrawals from his loved-ones, his friends, and his life. While Howard is unaware that his company is on the brink of failure, his partner Whit (Edward Norton) hatches a plan with mutual friends Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) to inspire hope back into his life by hiring actors to portray the Three Abstractions – Death, Love, and Time – Howard is writing to in his grief.
Executed as a multi-sectional narrative, Collateral Beauty’s gains and loses emotional impact in unequal measure.
Collateral Beauty suggests that the abstract Death gives life meaning. Here, it’s Howard who provides meaning to the film as the central narrative but it’s Will Smith’s performance which is central to the success of the film. Conveying the depth of Howard’s grief requires a subtle, inward performance that frequently relies on less on dialogue and more on subtle non-verbals and timing. Smith delivers a powerful performance that reminds audiences why he’s more than a wisecrack and a sly grin. In fact, Howard’s story is by far the strongest and most compelling piece of the entire film. This seems rather obvious from the marketing of the story; however, spending so much time on the impact of Howard’s self-imposed exile, the weight and significance of Howard’s journey begins to diminish in significance.
Time, the characters say, is a gift because the limitation inspires action and creates a meaning within that action. To that end, Collateral Beauty somewhat wastes the precious time is has in its 97-minute runtime by splitting the narrative weight between Howard and his friends. Developing each of the three friends is integral to both the character development and the central theme of interconnection, however, by providing nearly equal share to Whit, Claire, and Simon, it diminishes time with Howard, reducing the central narrative to smaller, less effective chucks. Again, this is likely to addresses the concept of “collateral beauty”, however, their stories are far less interesting than his. In fact, their individual stories are far more mundane and predictable, even in their humanity. Additionally, their stories seem to function as a tonal off-set for all of Howard’s gloom. While important for a film with a dark story to have lightness built-in, the switch from dark to light is so sharp, that both the sides lose their impact. Had the film committed to one emotional tone or found ways to soften the editorial shifts, perhaps the end result wouldn’t feel like the telling of different stories. But then, when faced with Time, you can only work with what you have.
Despite the narrative and tonal disparities, Collateral Beauty does an impressive job reminding audiences that no matter how insignificant we may feel, there are those around us that love us.; that even those lost in the deepest grief can still be aware of their connection to others; that Love, as an Abstract or not, binds us all. This overarching theme permeates the bones of the narrative and runs through to the casting of the characters. Howard, Whit, Claire, and Simon are portrayed as full individuals, possessing their own joys and pains, which would not be visible or remotely engaging without the assemblage of actors Frankel gathered. A story centered on grief requires a deft touch in the performance and, top down, for each actor to bring their A-game. Norton delivers a charming, yet heartfelt performance as a divorced father who’s a little lost without his best friend. Claire – a former mentee of Howard’s – is portrayed as loyal to the end, strong, but suffering from her own existential heartache. Peña, as Simon, once again delivers a performance that reminds audiences he’s one to watch, serving a utility role which requires him to switch from straight to humorous to dramatic within moments of each other.
But these characters would be nothing without the Three Abstracts they play off of. Helen Mirren possesses gravitas and gentle grace as she oscillates between Brigitte, the aging actress in search of a stage, and Death, the character she plays for Howard. She presents a version of Death that we all imagine – wizened, tenacious, and compassionate. Relatively newcomer Jacob Latimore is Raffi, a young actor hungry for a payday who portrays Time. Latimore’s performance embodies Time perfectly in his persistent and, sometimes, rage-driven delivery as he sees Howard wasting what he’s been given. In contrast to them both is Keira Knightley’s Amy, a young actress whose struggle to portray Love to a man in grief. Knightley’s history of playing a young woman in love enables her to bring to life not only Amy – who seems both flighty and flirty – but most of Amy’s deep commitment to honoring that which Howard has lost.
Collateral Beauty is the kind of December release intended to fit nicely with the feel of the holidays; a reminder that no matter how dark things become, we are surrounded by life, love, and hope. Though the attempt is sound, the intention honorable, and the casting exquisite, the inconsistent narrative focus creates tonally uneven emotional moments. The heart of the story is Howard’s journey of loss and redemption, and, on this, Collateral Beauty’s loss of focus struggles to land the emotional intensity it ultimately needs.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.