Film review by Jason Day of Collateral Beauty, the fantasy drama about a grieving man who writes to Death, Love and Time after the death of his daughter. Starring Will Smith and Edward Norton.
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Bereft after the death of his daughter, advertising wizard Howard (Will Smith) descends into grief and stops communicating with his company partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena). Desperate to stop their business from floundering, they hatch a scheme to have him legally declared non competent, so they can sell his share. The scheme involves hiring three actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore) to play the three abstract concepts of Death, Love and Time Howard has been writing to.
Review, by Jason Day
When the serious-minded Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman discussed how she should approach her character, Alfred Hitchcock memorably shut down her professional enquiry: “Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”
A surprising comment considering the pernickety and systematic way Hitch made his films, but petty torments of actors would never have been too much of a stretch for him
I often find myself quoting this comment when I’m brains-deep in discussion about the cinema – don’t take what you see on screen too seriously. It is, after all, just a collection of recorded images with sound tacked on.
But excited I do get about this pesky art form, even about those films that really should best be forgotten. Collateral Beauty is such a movie.
I’ve written before about being ‘cinematically prejudiced’. I fantasise about films based on trailers or word of mouth and imagine them out of all proportion into something far away from what they actually are or were intended to be.
This is what happens when you don’t read film reviews, a practice of mine for fear that another’s opinions will pollute my own critique.
I would have done well to steer a course toward them for guidance with this film, as the trailer to collateral Beauty seduces the viewer into thinking what they will see is a modern day fantasy about a grief-stricken man writing rant letters to abstract concepts, who then respond to help him deal with his loss.
From this, I had imagined this film as being imaginative and perhaps even daring, whimsically combining elements of the terrestrial with the metaphysical.
So, Collateral Beauty would be a philosophical work then? Wonderful – I’m quite happy with that.
But with the actual film, from such metaphysical hopes, things go down-hill. And very quickly because the writer, Allan Loeb (who had been germinating the story for many years) unaccountably decides to normalise the narrative by inserting a hoary old theatrical framing device.
He inserts a troupe of struggling actors who are approached by Smith’s greedy colleagues to play out the parts of death, love and time so he can be recorded interacting with ‘them’ in a bid to have him declared incompetent to assume control of his company.
Seemingly to rectify this, Collateral Beauty then casts this device aside because the actors (and you won’t forget they are so, because we have a whole section of the film devoted to explaining that they are) aren’t really actors.
They really are Death, Love and Time.
A ridiculous and unnecessary complication that is not the only let-down in a script that tries remorselessly to surprise the viewer (Naomi Harris is cast as Smith’s wife; Mirren as the mysterious woman with her in the hospital scene). But as every ‘revelation’ can be spotted from miles away, Loeb should have forgotten such additions and kept things simple, as the trailer has it.
I don’t know what is worse about this aspect film – that the writer (and production team, for they all complicit in this crappy cinematic hoodwink) thinks this passes for acceptable film writing or the fact that I knew these ‘great reveals’ were coming and sat patiently in my cinema seat, politely expecting to be entertained.
If only ‘Entertainment’ was one of the other abstract concepts Will Smith had written to, we may have had a better film.
As it is, we have what we have and there’s no denying the star wattage on display. Smith flounders in a lead role that requires him to be grumpy and not say a lot.
Norton, as usual, manages to do so much with such thin material as his morally dubious business partner and there are telling and smart support turns from Pena (an increasingly effective actor) and Knightley as a Love who is reluctant to play a part, so to speak.
All in all though, what a let-down. Avoid people; forewarned is forearmed.
Cast & credits
Director: David Frankel. 97mins. Palm Star Media/Likely Story/Anonymous Content/Overbrook Entertainment/Village Roadshow. (12a)
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Bard Dorros, Kevin Scott Frakes, Allan Loeb, Michael Sugar.
Writer: Allan Loeb.
Camera: Maryse Alberti.
Music: Theodore Shapiro.
Sets: Beth Mickle.
Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Helen Mirren, Naomi Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore.