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Friday, January 13, 2017

Review: Collateral Beauty

Love. Time. Death.

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 16th, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: David Frankel
Writers: Allan Loeb
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, 
Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, 
Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, 
Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd, 
Kylie Rogers

Can there be anything worse than losing a child? "Collateral Beauty" examines the raw depths of that pain. 

Howard (Will Smith) runs a successful advertising agency. He and his methods are described as "fearless." Then his daughter dies. She was only six years old. Overwhelmed by grief, Howard becomes a shell and retreats into himself. The day-to-day details of his work no longer interest him. He still shows up to the office, but he now spends his time there building elaborate structures using dominoes – only to knock them right back down after he's finished, tile by tile by agonizing tile. Then he starts the frustrating process all over again. After years of this, business is – needless to say – suffering badly.

It's up to his overburdened and overstressed co-workers to pick up the slack. His partner and best friend, Whit (Edward Norton), is kind of a twit. He got caught with his pants down, was forced into a divorce, and had to sell 10% of his shares in the company to pay for it. Howard, he explains, did him a great favor by buying him out. But that's also why the company is currently in the predicament it's in. Because Whit is no longer a 50-50 partner, nothing can move forward without Howard – who is inadvertently holding the business hostage by not being mentally or emotionally present. He has stubbornly closed himself off from the world and refuses to talk to even his closest friends and associates. Claire (Kate Winslet) is terrified that everything they've worked a decade for will suddenly "evaporate." Simon (Michael Peña) has his own personal, private reasons for wanting the agency to get back on its feet. His family's future is at stake. Meanwhile, Whit has family problems of his own. His daughter (Kylie Rogers, "Miracles from Heaven") says she hates him because he's a "philanthropist." She means "philanderer," of course – cute!

Whit, Claire, and Simon get together and attempt to orchestrate what is essentially a hostile takeover of their friend's organization. As understandable as their motives may be, their methods seem reprehensible on the surface. This is where "Collateral Beauty" almost lost me. Almost.

They hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to look for the "smoking gun" that will allow them to question Howard's competency in running the firm. She breaks into a public mailbox – a federal offense – and discovers that he has been writing angry letters. But they're not addressed to people. Without revealing too much, it isn't long before he receives a personal response to his heated messages – from Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley), and Time (Jacob Latimore). All of them, he rages, conspired to take his daughter away from him.

Would you believe it if Death, for example, visited you in the form of an elderly white woman? Howard does, and that's enough to motivate him to finally attend a grief counseling session. It's led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who noticed him standing outside and staring into the window during previous meetings. He is very reluctant to open up but responds positively to her patience and kindness. She lost a child too, so she understands. After her daughter died, she was approached in the hospital and advised to recognize the collateral beauty all around her. It took her a long time before she comprehended the meaning of those words, and he certainly isn't ready to hear that message yet.

"Collateral Beauty" is the kind of movie that you will either love or hate – there is no middle ground. It's getting ugly reviews by critics. Part of me can understand why. The trailer misleadingly depicts the movie as light and whimsical when it's actually anything but. Will Smith's character is maddeningly obstinate, his co-workers come across initially as unlikeable and opportunistic, and even Death, Love, and Time aren't given clear motivations at first. I spent the early portion of the film angered by its apparent bait-and-switch and dark, depressing, unexpectedly all-too-realistic tone.

But then, slowly but surely, the story sucked me in and the incredible cast won me over. After all, losing a child isn't supposed to be fluffy and full of rainbows. If the film had depicted a tragedy of that magnitude as airily and marshmallowy as the preview did, reactions would be even more negative than they already are. So much could have gone wrong with this concept logically, but the screenplay does a fairly decent job of explaining and adhering to all of the "rules" it sets up.

Whether you will be moved by the movie's message, I suppose, depends on how cynical you are. This, I think, requires a certain soft spot in your heart. It ultimately worked for me, even though it did take a while for me to warm up to it.  

The film is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, anger-inducing and serenely moving, heartbreaking and heartwarming – much like collateral beauty itself.

Side Note from Silver Screen Sister:

"This is the best movie I've ever seen!" she gushed. Then again, she says that after every movie. Clearly, she doesn't go to too many, but her picks are always top-notch ("Chef," "Steve Jobs," "Boyhood." The less said about watching "Black Swan" with her, the better.)

"Edward Norton was great," she praised. "Has he done anything else? He now has a new fan!"

"What else has Helen Mirren been in?"

I'm sure these two up-and-coming youngsters will greatly appreciate her support.

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