My god, it’s like we’re living not only in the darkest timeline but in the mirror universe, the one where there is no pity or mercy and the central driving human emotion is self-serving cruelty. This holiday season, Hollywood has given us the creepy, rapey Passengers to serve as a grand romance, and it has given us the sadistic Collateral Beauty to serve as a feel-good fantasy. What has become of us? It cannot bode any good thing about the current state of humanity that the manufacturer and reflector of our sweeping cultural hopes and dreams has read our collective mood in such an ugly way and imagined that these stories would resonate with us. (Then again, Collateral Beauty appears to be trying to be a sort of modern It’s a Wonderful Life, and that movie is accidentally dark and grim in ways that no one seems to want to admit, so maybe this wrongheadedness is nothing new from Hollywood.)
Screenwriter Allan Loeb has written many awful movies — Just Go with It, The Dilemma, The Switch — and he specializes in hugely problematic scenarios that he seems to think he makes palatable. But he has reached a new low with Beauty. (Director David Frankel has made some lovely, wise movies: Hope Springs, The Big Year. I don’t know what he saw in this one.) This disgusting movie posits that a grieving man’s pain may be best cured by his supposed friends treating him with the most appalling disdain possible, and that the larger universe — in a supernatural, vaguely religious yet nondenominational sense — will not only happily support such a plan but actively encourage it.
I simply cannot understand how anyone who is not a sociopath could look at Collateral Beauty at any stage of its planning, production, or postproduction and say, “This is fine.” I cannot understand how anyone who has lost someone they love — which is most of us — could look at this movie and think, “I am onboard with this. This is a healthy story about grief and recovery.”
“You think you’re escaping from this movie, dude? No way. We’re stuck here, and so are you.”
Howard (Will Smith: Suicide Squad, Concussion) lost his six-year-old daughter, and he’s just not able to cope with it, which is hardly surprising. But his business partners, Whit (Edward Norton: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Bourne Legacy), Claire (Kate Winslet: Triple 9, The Dressmaker), and Simon (Michael Peña: The Martian, Vacation), are tired of waiting for him to snap out of it: their New York City advertising agency is suffering as Howard neglects their work. So they hire a private investigator to dig up stuff they can use to prove to the company’s board that Howard is no longer in a correct state of mind to have any say in how the company is run. Their PI, Sally (Ann Dowd [Our Brand Is Crisis, The Drop], a wonderful character actor who deserves much better than this, as does the whole cast), unearths the fact that Howard is writing letters to Time, Death, and Love, to complain about his treatment at their hands. Yes, Sally steals his letters, and Howard’s “friends” read them. (This is horrible, but the movie barely acknowledges that.) Claire notes sadly that the letters are “therapeutic,” and Simon says that they aren’t enough to suggest that Howard has lost his mind, and they’re both right. So they have to kick things up a notch: they compound their violation of Howard’s privacy and his grief by deciding to hire actors to portray Time, Death, and Love, to show up in person and confront Howard about his complaints, in public, and in such a way that suggests that only Howard, and no one else, can see these “manifestations” of esoteric concepts.
Yeah, you read that right. Howard’s “friends” decide to try to trick him into thinking that he’s going crazy. Because losing his daughter has not fucked him up enough.
It almost seems like Collateral Beauty will call Whit, Claire, and Simon on their bullshit. “You want us to gaslight your boss?” actor Brigitte (Helen Mirren: Trumbo, Eye in the Sky) asks, pretending to be appalled, when Whit brings their proposal before her. She actually isn’t appalled, for reasons that we never learn. She has somehow arranged for Whit to hire her and her theater pals Amy (Keira Knightley: Everest, The Imitation Game) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore: The Maze Runner, Vanishing on 7th Street). It never makes any sense. (They are preparing a three-person show at the “Hegel Theater” in Manhattan, which might be the most pompous and simultaneously most pointless intellectual reference I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie. Hegel was a famous philosopher, you see, and Beauty is “philosophical,” or some shit. But just try to make any of Hegel’s idea fit into the story here. It is an exercise in futility.) Gaslighting is precisely what they propose to do… and Brigitte and the others are ultimately okay with it. As is the movie, which — in spite of additional horrific behavior on the part of Whit, Claire, and Simon — insists that this really will help Howard on his path to recovery.
“Get as far away from this movie as quickly as you can. Your career depends upon it.”
As with Passengers, we seem to have entered some new moral realm in which as long as people put up token resistance before agreeing to commit really terrible acts, that makes it okay in the end. And if you feel bad about it, it’s okay to dump all sorts of barbarity onto other people. This is all the height of narcissism: it’s not fucking about you or about how you feel about your acts, and your mild regrets do not excuse your bad behavior. If you know something is wrong and you do it anyway, it’s still fucking wrong.
Collateral Beauty has no idea how wrong it is. It continues to insist that Howard is helped by the deception of his “friends,” that the friends’ own issues with time, love, and death are cured by their deception, and even that the underlying forces that rule the universe are cool with this. Collateral Beauty suggests that the manipulations of advertising — which Howard had “philosophized” as being all about appealing to human anxieties over love, time, and death — are as honest and pure as grieving over the death of a child. Perhaps the worst thing of all is that, in the end, we still have no idea what “collateral beauty” comes out of death and grief. The idea is that losing someone you love shows you new truths about the world, but all we see here is that people will treat you like shit and that you will forgive them for it. Where is the beauty in that?