If you were to ask me in passing, perhaps at a holiday party we were both attending, to give you my review of Collateral Beauty, I would tell you: "Helen Mirren is great and the movie is..................................................fine."
All of the previews for Collateral Beauty have made it seem like a weepy, modern take on A Christmas Carol. And it is? Sort of? The actual movie starts with a scene of Will Smith's slick ad exec, Howard, waxing philosophical in the way only movie bosses do about love, time and death and how these three ideas connect all humans (and can be used to sell them stuff).
Jump forward a few years later and a bleary, red-eyed Howard has taken to writing letters to these abstractions -- Love, Time and Death -- after losing his 6-year-old daughter. With the company now crumbling, his colleagues and supposed close friends (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña) hatch a plan to hire theater actors to play these roles and, in essence, gaslight Howard. If it works, he will be declared mentally unfit and they will be able to sell the company. (They also repeatedly claim they care deeply about Howard, and the scheme could help him heal.)
So, that's the actual plot. It's rather odd that the advertising is promoting the theater actors as angels, because -- here's where I'm going to get into some big spoilers -- Helen Mirren actually is Death, Jacob Latimore is Time, and Keira Knightley is Love. (What? You thought Keira Knightley was going to play Death?) But that's a cutesy last-minute twist, given away in all of the trailers.
If that serve as any indication, the rest of the movie is equally heavy-handed -- Howard sits in dark rooms and rides his bike into oncoming traffic to show how sad he is -- but dammit, if this cast didn't give it their all. Mirren and Peña, who is also great, are a highlight, and their scenes together border on moving. The problem is screenwriter Allan Loeb hasn't created actual characters. They are all just ideas with increasingly little to do, down to poor Winslet, whose character Claire's only personality trait is that she reaaaaally wants a baby, which we know because she is constantly staring at websites for sperm donors.
Without much to go on in the way of genuine, character-based pathos, then, director David Frankel seems to think that slowly zooming in on his actors as they cry is enough to make viewers cry. That and the god-awful music choices, which is honestly the worst part of the movie. Any time something even remotely emotional happens, wailing, melodramatic indie rock swells. When I watched these characters cry onscreen, I did want to feel what they were feeling. When I heard the music, I internally screamed.
There is a second twist in the movie, one that I won't spoil here, that worked like a sucker punch on me. Though, maybe I'm just a sucker for this brand of sappiness. Also, I do think there is a beautiful if slightly obvious message in the film's incessant domino imagery, about how when everything gets knocked down, you have no choice but to start over. That may just be the collateral beauty in the otherwise *shrug* fine Collateral Beauty.