December 16, 2016

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

"...Smug, lazy and clumsily manipulative..."


Travis Johnson
Year: 2016
Rating: M
Director: David Frankel

Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris

Distributor: Roadshow
Released: January 12, 2017
Running Time: 97 minutes
Worth: $4.00

FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

“…Smug, lazy and clumsily manipulative…”

Making an early play for Worst Film of 2017 is this bizarre, twee and sanctimonious work from director, David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me). Rarely has such a genuinely talented cast been put to such ill use in the service of… well, it’s hard to say, but let’s see what we can divine from the entrails.

Will Smith is Howard, an advertising executive who has fallen to pieces following the death of his young daughter. The other partners at his firm (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena) are sympathetic – he’s a friend, after all – but they really need him to either step up or step down rather than spend his days building elaborate domino displays and his nights staring at the wall in his unpowered, empty apartment.

Howard is so broken by his tragedy that he has written letters to Death, Time and Love complaining about the injustices heaped upon himself and his loved ones, which gives Whit (Norton) an idea – they’ll hire actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore) to play the human personifications of those three abstract forces, get them to approach Howard and engage him in conversation, and have a private investigator shoot video of the encounters. Phase two of the plan? Digitally remove the actors from the video and use the resulting footage of Howard ranting in the street as evidence to have him declared mentally incompetent.

Now, all that might pass muster as the plot for a blacker than black comedy in the mould of, say, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (indeed, it would suit Danny DeVito’s directorial sensibilities perfectly) but Collateral Beauty is not that movie. This plot, which the film at least has the self-awareness to briefly label as gaslighting before dismissing the horrible implications, is framed as a desperate act of kindness. Whit and his co-conspirators really love Howard and they want to help him (and themselves – there’s a financial angle to their motives) – it’s just that apparently to do so they need to make their friend, boss and mentor look completely insane in front of the authorities.

There’s not a single character here who acts like a human being with understandable motives and thought processes. People keep secrets purely to have manipulative emotional pay-offs in the third act. The script withholds information from the audience for much the same reason – there’s a bit of business with group therapy that you’ll see coming a mile away, dismiss as being far too on the nose, and then groan as that particular plotline lands exactly where it shouldn’t. There’s no life to the relationships, no consistency to the characters’ actions, and it’s all in service to a thesis about life, death and grief that you couldn’t explain clearly in a thousand years.

Here’s what really galls: within this terrible film, built from this awful script (by Allan Loeb) are some really good performances. When he’s not building terrible visual metaphors for no reason, Will Smith’s raw, open display of naked grief is incredibly affecting. Edward Norton’s turn as a beat-down divorced dad reminds us what a vital performer he is, and makes you wish he was in more (and better) stuff. Helen Mirren’s aggrandising old theatre dame bit is entertaining. Credit where credit is due. Still, it’s like watching  killer whales do tricks in a cramped aquarium – you know these magnificent beasts belong in an environment that suits them, not this poorly built, bland and ugly milieu.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that actors of this calibre find themselves in material like this – is this where the ongoing decline of the mid-budget drama has brought us? Still, there’s no excuse – let them stand in the dock with the writer and director. It’s hard to say which possibility here is worse: either this thing actually reflects somebody’s ideas on how grief and human relationships work, or it’s a cynical piece of product awkwardly but deliberately designed to push emotional buttons. Smug, lazy and clumsily manipulative, Collateral Beauty is grief porn for sociopaths. Avoid it like the plague.


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