* out of ****
(for thematic elements and brief strong language)
Released: December 16, 2016
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: David Frankel
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Kiera Knightly, Michael Peña, Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd, Naomie Harris
Collateral Beauty is the humanist carbon copy of the Christian-lit phenomenon The Shack. Both are schlocky excuses for parables of grace in the midst of life-crippling grief. The niche Christian Media industry can now boast “Hey, they’re ripping us off for once!”, but at least this tripe isn’t heretical. So there’s that.
Will Smith plays Howard, a Madison Avenue advertising guru who’s falling apart during a slow, steady, debilitating breakdown following the death of his young daughter. Instead of being visited upon by unorthodox versions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (as the tormented man in The Shack is), visages of a non-deity trinity comprised of Love, Death, and Time appear to Howard after he’s written and mailed letters to them, crying out for answers. They provide some pat bromides under the guise of profundity, even as the film defensively goes out of its way to tell us how offensive such cliché encouragements can be.
There’s an extra layer to these encounters that the film’s sappy trailers don’t reveal, and it makes the whole premise more intriguing than it first appeared…until the reality of that layer sinks in and you realize this whole mess is even more of a fraud than you initially, cynically suspected.
Constructed on treacly, absurd contrivances meant to reveal hope in tragedy, Collateral Beauty wants to pierce our hearts with a high concept fable that would never actually be possible for anyone to experience. How can one garner comfort from something so patently bogus, let alone extend tear-jerking sympathy toward a wealthy person of financial means and deeply-concerned friends (as opposed to, say, a middle class or low income person of no resources or safety net)?
We’re also spoon-fed lame, faux-philosophical slogans and isms like “What is your ‘Why’?”, along with superficial attempts at clever insight such as spinning the title as a deep, contemplative paradigm shifter on how to perceive the damage (and its wake) that life often wields. Peppering some of these fluffy axioms with profanities is a lame attempt at giving them an “edge”, and doesn’t make them any less cheeseball. Please, just save it all for the pretentious TEDtalk or Inspirational / Leadership conference circuit, okay?
As the film unfolds, its spurious emotional gaslighting bears itself out and even doubles down. The capper insult comes in the closing dénouement of a Shyamalan-lite twist. Despite suggesting something you likely assumed anyway, the implication takes whatever smidgeon of conviction the movie had and then strips itself of the courage to stick even to that.
If you want to see a truthful, unflinching, and cathartic meditation on grief and loss, you need look no further than down the multiplex walkway for Oscar-contender Manchester by the Sea. But if you genuinely want the ridiculously preposterous version then, well, here’s your saccharine feast. Have at.
Honestly, it’s amazing that Hollywood types can peddle this kind of Oprah-fied non-religious spiritual hokum and then have the gall to turn around with a straight face and tell us how to vote.