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by maryann johanson, liberal movie person

Collateral Beauty movie review: there is no beauty in this

Collateral Beauty red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Appalling and sadistic. How can anyone who is not a sociopath look at this horrible attempt at feel-good fantasy and say, “This is fine, this is healthy”?tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.)

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.
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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 disgustingtweet 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.”

“You think you’re escaping from this movie, dude? No way. We’re stuck here, and so are you.”tweet

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.

Collateral Beauty has no idea how wrong it is.
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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?”tweet 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.”

“Get as far away from this movie as quickly as you can. Your career depends upon it.”tweet

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?


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Collateral Beauty (2016) | directed by David Frankel
US/Can release: Dec 16 2016
UK/Ire release: Dec 26 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language, bereavement theme)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • halavana

    “it’s not… 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 …ing wrong.” yup. if any of my friends did something like this to me, they wouldn’t be friends for long.

    what puzzles me is that movies like this are all the rage, but no one making them seems to notice how creepy they are.

  • RogerBW

    Presumably everyone with any kind of creative authority over a film like this has worked their way into the Hollywood system, which I would imagine puts a pretty odd filter on what one regards as normal behaviour.

  • Pixies&Me

    I will say I found the subject matter beyond sad and was very uncomfortable with it. However, the way the film challenges the viewer to reflect on their own Love, Time and Death is excellent. I have lived with these “states’ of life” since the death of my Grandmother in 1984, when I was 21. Since that date I am mindful of how much time, I don’t have to love, before my own death. It is a mantra. And don’t take those I love and care for for granted. So this film was a reminder to me to live each day, as best I can, without malice. In refencence to the film Howard’s “friends” all had their own issues’ and rather than looking to fix their own they chose Howard as they seen him as most needy, and overlooked their own. In my experience of talking to people over a 35 year career of barbering and hairdressing this happens to a lot of people, they’d rather do that than face their own problems, in denial. So I think the film was right to approach a difficult subject. On leaving the cinema I heard people talk about and how the film hi- lighted their lack of time, love and death problems. I think that was good in a day where communication is mostly virtual. It’s a film that definitely helps to apprecitate life, friends and family.

  • Too bad. The trailers looked interesting, but the trailers left out the part about the gaslighting. I take it that none of these friends tries to simply talk to Howard and suggest that he take some time off before the company he’s running goes down in flames? He could play with his dominoes somewhere else.

    On a tangential note …

    (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.)

    Accidentally? Darkness and grimness are present throughout all but the last five minutes or so of its running time. Hard to believe they didn’t intend it. But if you didn’t find the last five minutes sufficiently heartwarming, you might enjoy the alternative ending.

  • Beowulf

    Ha. Usually, the trailers for movies give away the whole movie, or simply show the whole thing in a two-and-a-half minute synopsis (cheerfully ruining those shocks and giggles the writer/director had planned for the 30-minute point of the film). Is there a new trend at work here? BOTH “Passengers” and this movie have deliberately misleading trailers. It’s like making a “Psycho” trailer that posits Norman as a goofball who likes to prank unsuspecting Motel guests with his mom’s preserved corpse in a comedy for the whole family.

  • RogerBW

    One could hope that the people making the trailers are so offended by the film’s core concept that they deliberately make something deceptive. But probably not.

  • I find *IAWL* grim in ways the film doesn’t realize it’s being grim, like how it requires George to give up on his dreams: he’s basically a doormat, and ends up happy to be so. And I mention that SNL alt ending in my review. :-)

  • One difference here is that while the marketing of *Passengers* is protecting a mid-film twist, the whole gaslighting thing is present from the beginning of *Collateral Beauty.* But you can’t sell that sort of story as a pleasant fantasy.

  • Jakub Kucharski

    Kind lady, I absolutely love you. I just finished watching this moview with my mother, and I’m astonished, that she didnt saw anything crude in there, and thats me, who is “heartless”. This review was quite therapeuting for me…

  • Bwahaha. So you do.

    You have a good point about George having to give up on his dreams. It IS dark in a way the filmmakers may not have intended, and that has occurred to me, now that you mention it.

    My guess is that the darkness gets buried in wish-fulfillment. What the real George Bailey’s of the world want—if they can’t chase their own dreams—is for all the people they’ve helped to acknowledge their sacrifices. To be celebrated for their good deeds. And to receive help when they’re the ones in need. Most of them, I suspect, are not.

  • Captain Megaton

    So I guess to sign everyone up to a movie like this they go to Will Smith and say “well, Kate Winslet is in it”, and the go to Kate Winslet and say “well Keira Knightley is in it”, and the go to Keira Knightley and say “well Edward Norton is in it”, and they go to Edward Norton and say “well Helen Mirren is in it”, and Helen Mirren says “where is my paycheck?”…

  • I think it’s more likely that all the women appearing in this were happy to have been offered a script in which they weren’t being asked to play a wife, girlfriend, mother, or victim.

  • Weygand

    Excellent insight. I agree

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