DIR: David Frankel • WRI: Allan Loeb • PRO: Anthony Bregman, Bard Dorros, Kevin Scott Frakes, Allan Loeb, Michael Sugar • DOP: Maryse Alberti • ED: Andrew Marcus • DES: Beth Mickle • MUS: Theodore Shapiro • CAST: Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet
We open on successful advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) speaking to an enthralled crowd of workers, including his partners Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Simon Scott (Michael Peña) and Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet). Howard lays out his tenets of advertising – three central themes that all successful campaigns must use to connect with people on a deep and emotional level: Love, Time and Death. Fast forward two years, and Howard is dealing with the loss of his six-year-old daughter by withdrawing from life and from his firm – leaving his partners, and workers, on the receiving end of possible bankruptcy as he ignores his clients. Howard writes three angry letters to these tenets he so espoused, which are intercepted by a the matronly Sally Price (Ann Dowd), a PI hired by Whit, who gets away with spying for the simple reason people don’t notice that she’s there. With the possibility of the firm’s collapse looming, and at the end of their tether, his friends decide to force a way into his veil of grief by hiring actors to each play the role of Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Helen Mirren), and respond to his deeply personal letters. They hope to film his reactions, frame him, and have him declared insane, thereby allowing them to take control of – and save – the company. As their plan unfolds, Howards finds himself discovering a human connection with a grief counsellor suffering her own loss, Madeleine (Naomie Harris), and perhaps a window of light in his dark life.
Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, 2006; Marley & Me, 2008; Hope Springs, 2012), and written by the eclectically random Allan Loeb, with a heavy, heavy hand you can see what the filmmakers are trying to do here – make sense of grief by using proxies (in this case Love, Time and Death) to draw out emotional responses. However, when you use proxies, you get proxy replies – and nothing in this film feels real or heartfelt. For starters, the premise that these ‘friends’ are doing this to Howard – declaring him insane rather than working harder to be a friend, and help in some way. Grief is not something that simply passes, or an inconvenience that needs to be easily ‘gotten over’. It’s a shocking lack of understanding about true emotion, and means that the film comes across as patronising and unfeeling, when I’m sure quite the opposite was the intention – after all, it really is quite a cast to come together for something that ends up being so melodramatic and false. Will Smith acts his socks off, as he usually does, in an attempt to give Howard the emotional resonance a character like this deserves. Each of his friends – Norton, Winslet and Peña – have personal tragedies or struggles that makes their own lives as convoluted and disturbed as Howard’s, and a vastly superior film would have been to watch these sometimes-great, but generally pretty good, actors hash out real emotion onscreen. Surrogate interferences from Love, Time and Death serve simply as Hollywood-esque responses to actual reality, and distract from the possibility of a real story at the heart of the film’s intentions.
Despite game attempts by various cast members, it can’t stand on its own two feet, and crumbles under the weight of a simplistic script that bounces from comedy to melodrama with disarming frequency. A disappointing movie, overall, that lacks any self-awareness, Collateral Beauty has no real heart in its shallow depths.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Collateral Beauty is released 26th December 2016