One would suspect that Titanic would not be as great a blockbuster if two minutes after he drowned, Jack appeared right behind Rose and yelled “Bazzinga!”, although I do and forever will maintain that there was enough space on there for both of them (sob). My point, however, is that when a movie builds up to a moment of grief or is built around grief and its impact, as is the case with Collateral Beauty, they don’t work well alongside M. Night Shymalan-esque plot twists. Movies or shows where grief plays a big role, regardless of what the grief is a result of, are carried successfully by three main things—a soul-rending combination of the piano and the cello, a cast picked to perfection and a screenplay that focuses on the dilemma or conflict surrounding the character or characters around whom the tragedy is based while offering only the occasional nod to the storyline. Collateral Beauty has only about one-and-a-half of those characteristics—a stellar cast and, while it doesn’t feature the duet of a piano and cello, One Republic has done fantastic work on their soundtrack, especially with their single “Let’s Hurt Tonight”. However, besides a fantastic cast (that rub against each other like bone against bone with no cartilage) and a pretty decent soundtrack, the movie has little else to offer.
“Love, time, death. Now these three things connect every single human being on earth. We long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death.”
My indignance at being let down by this movie stems not only from certain expectations that I had set for a cast consisting of Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren, but also from the fact that Collateral Beauty promised so much in its trailers, as a movie that could really explore the idea of grief and how it affects us, as well as a movie can within ninety minutes. The film begins with a wonderful snippet about the person that Smith used to be, talking confidently and intelligently about the “three abstractions—love, time and death”. Literally, within seven minutes, he is reduced from the charismatic, creative head of an advertising company (a Don Draper with a penchant for dominoes) to an individual who is depressed, devoid of hope and of any concrete reason to wake up the next day. There is no explanation as to how, no explanation from his subordinates/partners/co-workers, one of whom is played by Edward Norton, as to what has happened, but for a brief discussion about how voting him out of the company would be the best thing possible. I mean, what the hell? The movie that convinced people in its trailers, and indeed in its title, that grief can be beautiful, works not only in such a disjointed and creaky manner but also fails to track the various stages of grief. Of course, they don’t have to go through Denial, Aggression, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance (the 5 stages of grief), but perhaps a more organic movement of this process might have been appreciated. The inter-relations between characters was so flawed that even their impeccable acting was unable to make up for what seemed like direction at the hands of an even more naïve Zack Snyder.
“And the poetry. ‘To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier’- Whitman. ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Though wise men at their end know dark is right’-Thomas. ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, life…is…but…a dream.”
Obviously, there is something reassuring about visualizing “death” as an elegant Helen Mirren, dressed in all blue and wearing what looked like a beanie, and there seems to be something all too out-there about having “love” in the form of Keira Knightley ambush you in a restaurant (although I am a romantic, I wouldn’t know about “out-there”), like I’ve constantly been saying and hating how repetitive I have to sound but the movie struggles (in the same boat as the viewer then) to move and to really go anywhere. The lack of a proper, organic movement from grief and on to various stages within that grief and then finally beyond, hamstrings the movie, of that there is no doubt, but perhaps good direction and a well-scripted and thought out progression of action may have also helped. But even pablum like The Fault In Our Stars does a better job of screenplay than this mess. Yes, that was written by an author, but is it too much to hope for more than one beautiful monologue in a movie that is supposed to explore the beauty of grief?
“Just be sure to notice the collateral beauty. It’s the profound connection to everything.”
Okay, yes, it isn’t easy to make a movie that discusses the strength one is supposed to have in times of mourning or even one that reminds you sadness comes with a sliver of hope that tomorrow might not be as bad as today. Collateral Beauty, while causing as much havoc upon the reputation of that genre, does do some things right. It may not keep you occupied for the entirety of that slow trudge up a snowy hill in the late evenings, but the performances, as bad as they are in the gestalt, shine through. Helen Mirren is excellent as the theatre actress who always craved applause, with her perfect delivery of dialogues which would be intense in such a measured manner, while completely expressing herself as “death”. There was a sense of duopoly, polyphonic almost, in the difference of her character as the actress in the movie and as the role of death. Keira Knightley’s monologue about love is astounding, not only for the truths it spouts, but for the emotive nature of her speech. Even Jacob Latimore is as nonchalant and easy going as you would expect “time” to be, a truly difficult job to do given the constructs humanity burdens time with, and the illusory nature in which we choose to view it. Will Smith, the great actor he has always been, I thought did a better job in Independence Day 2 where they only showed his photo somewhere in the background, aside from the one rant he goes on in the subway. I know these pieces do not a movie make, but they provide excellent quotes for a wannabe writer/poet/reviewer sitting in his dinky little room, let down by a movie he really hoped he would like and maybe identify with its portrayals of the abstractions.
“I’m love, and I’m the fabric of life. Love is the reason for everything. I was there in her laugh, but I am also here in your pain. Maybe if you can understand that then you can live again.”
Now, having raved about bits in the movie, I will go on to disparage it in the conclusion, if only to give you an idea of how jarring the movie was. Oh yes, the plot twist. The wolf to my Red Riding Hood, the Kanye to my Kim, the Affleck to my Batman; essentially, it huffed and puffed (and actually kept going, because Will Smith kept repeating the same lines again and again like a broken recorder) and brought the movie down. The reveal was, and this time I’m not spoiling it because I’m a mean git (well, not just that) but because I want to spare you the pain of watching it, the woman who hosts the support group that Smith initially hesitates to attend, but eventually does, treats him as a stranger, and he her. Finally, it is found after he signed his share in the company over to the others, he comes back to her, gets some closure by finally accepting that their daughter is dead and they hug it out, remembering her as his wife. I swear, it felt like Kevin James had taken advice from M. Night Shyamalan for this twist and I literally blew my fuse. YOU DON’T PUT A PLOT TWIST TO EMPHASIZE TRAGEDY. David Frankel, if you’re reading this, repeat that sentence ten times before you announce your retirement from your directing career, and give us one piece of good news in such uncertain times, although not devoid of its share of golden showers. Now, if at the end of this review, you thought you learned and/or liked something, I’m glad you did. If you didn’t, however, and felt that it was a total waste of time, grey matter, anticipation and emotion, well, now you feel exactly as I did when I finished watching the movie. Sigh, I had such high hopes. I hate ever giving a one-word verdict about anything, so I’m not going to do that here. I’ll give you a two-word verdict—Don’t watch. Unless, of course, you have a thing for Will Smith looking like he is constipated for ninety minutes.