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Collateral Beauty Movie Review

Collateral Beauty Blu-ray cover art
Collateral Beauty is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

Collateral Beauty (2016) movie poster Collateral Beauty

Theatrical Release: December 16, 2016 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: David Frankel / Writer: Allan Loeb

Cast: Will Smith (Howard Inlet), Edward Norton (Whit Yardsham), Kate Winslet (Claire Wilson), Michael Peña (Simon Scott), Helen Mirren (Brigitte/Death), Naomie Harris (Madeline), Keira Knightley (Amy/Love), Jacob Lattimore (Raffi/Time), Ann Dowd (Sally Price)

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Will Smith's reign as king of the box office clearly ended a few years ago. That probably means smaller paydays and somewhat fewer offers for him, but it also frees the longtime movie star and hyphenate
from having to make movies that are expected to be blockbusters. Twenty-five years of popularity ensures Smith is still a draw for many, a fact confirmed by the strong numbers put up by Suicide Squad despite tepid reviews. But instead of saving the world from aliens and mutants, Smith can now shine a light on sports-related traumas in Concussion or play a con man in Focus.

Collateral Beauty gives Smith another medium-sized movie in which to stretch his creative muscles. Though opening near Christmas, this human drama is practically devoid of visual effects and not intended to be an I Am Legend-level attraction. Collateral, unlike Suicide Squad, is decidedly a Will Smith vehicle (even if he replaced Hugh Jackman), but this one surrounds him with some uncharacteristically esteemed and decorated supporting actors including Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, and Keira Knightley.

In "Collateral Beauty", a grieving ad executive (Will Smith) gets visited by a woman claiming to be Death (Helen Mirren), who holds the letter he mailed to her.

Smith plays Howard Inlet, a New York advertising executive who at the film's opening holds his office captive with a passionate speech putting their work into perspective. We then jump ahead three years to find Howard a shell of himself. His hair and beard have gone salt and pepper and he hardly talks to anyone now, retreating to his office to spend days constructing elaborate domino shows. How did Howard get this way? Well, he lost his 6-year-old daughter and no amount of therapy can set him straight. His sad life consists of solemn bicycle rides, sometimes into traffic, inexplicable visits to a dog park, therapeutic letter writing, and retreats to his apartment, where he has no phone or Internet or any way of taking his mind off the pain.

Howard's fellow executives Whit (Norton), Claire (Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) are aware that their company is in danger with him in this state. But since Howard owns a majority share, their hands are tied to performing a sale that might steer the sinking ship to safety. They decide to pursue options to challenge their grieving friend's competency, ultimately taking the extreme step of hiring three serious stage actors: Brigitte (Mirren), Aimee (Knightley), and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to respectively portray Death, Love, and Time, three abstracts to whom Howard has recently written and mailed letters (a discovery made by an unassuming private eye played by Ann Dowd).

Approaching him with his letters in hand, the actors take Howard off-guard and have him questioning reality and his sanity. Their interactions also drive him to confront the demons he is facing, prompting him to attend a support group (run by Naomie Harris) for parents of dead children that he has been avoiding.

Concerned by their grieving colleague's behavior, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) take action to remove him from his majority control of the company.

Written by Allan Loeb (21, The Switch, Just Go With It, Here Comes the Boom), Collateral Beauty feels very much like a modern-day Frank Capra movie. That may sound like extreme praise, given how highly many, myself included, regard Capra today for enduring works like It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life,
and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But keep in mind, those films had some vocal detractors in their day and I'm pretty confident that Collateral is going to be decimated by many of my fellow critics.

This is a film relying on a slick high concept to tackle grief, something experienced by virtually everyone in their lives. Serious emotion is not something that is easy to present in film, especially PG-13 movies designed to draw crowds in over 3,000 theaters. Critics appreciate cinema that opts for rawness and sincerity, things you'll find in the likes of Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, two of 2016's most acclaimed and decorated films. Collateral is not raw but calculated and its sincerity seems undercut by a reliance on some twists (which are explicitly designed as "aha" moments). All the characters are given their own arcs to function as subplots, from divorced Whit's estrangement from his young daughter to Simon's secret terminally ill status. They complement Howard's journey and add layers to the ways in which those three abstracts function in life. But they don't make for the most graceful of dramas.

With unknown actors and makers less experienced than Loeb and director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me), this film might well win over some critics with its heart. But as presented with movie stars and a wide launch across from awards-tailored fare, this is going to be panned. Nonetheless, I found its earnestness admirable. I also appreciated its willingness to offer a slightly fantastical world view resembling Capra's some seventy to eighty years after his heyday. That may or may not register with general moviegoers, who undoubtedly represent the film's primary audience and the one that needs to be won over. Such moviegoers aren't as picky about manipulation and convention should enjoy the film as a more mature and emotionally resonant variation on Smith's apparently esteemed Seven Pounds.

Expertly photographed to tastefully show off the New York we know from other big high-concept movies, Collateral Beauty exemplifies the high technical standards you expect of a big studio picture, which this qualifies despite a presumably modest budget and multiple changes of personnel in development (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was originally attached to direct even after Jackman and Rooney Mara departed). The acting is pretty terrific all around. Long an effortlessly charismatic comic hero, Smith has somehow come to be underrated dramatically, but he reminds us of his knack for drawing sympathy. Those around him elevate the material instead of playing down to it, with Mirren and Norton giving thoughtful yet funny performances you don't often find in Smith's movies.

There are more thrilling and more skillful movies to discover in theaters this time of year, but Collateral Beauty has the potential to hit you on a greater emotional level than the others if you are able to accept all it asks of you.

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Related Reviews:
Collateral Beauty (Blu-ray)
In Theaters: Hidden Figures • Manchester by the Sea • Office Christmas Party • Why Him? • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Will Smith: Concussion • Focus • After Earth • Suicide Squad • Hancock • Men in Black 3
Edward Norton: Primal Fear • Stone • 25th Hour | Kate Winslet: Labor Day • Steve Jobs • Contagion
Helen Mirren: Eye in the Sky • Woman in Gold • Teaching Mrs. Tingle | Keira Knightley: Begin Again • The Imitation Game
Written by Allan Loeb: 21 • The Switch • Just Go With It • Rock of Ages • Here Comes the Boom
Directed by David Frankel: The Big Year • Marley & Me
Winter's Tale • The Sea of Trees • It's a Wonderful Life • Demolition

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Reviewed December 13, 2016.



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