Movie Review: ‘COLLATERAL BEAUTY’ – little full, lotta sap


Jared McMillan // Film Critic

Rated PG-13, 97 min.
Director: David Frankel
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate WinsletMichael PeñaHelen MirrenNaomie Harris and Keira Knightley

A movie that is made for the holidays has a checklist of items it must contain to be successful. For one, there need to be characters that are lacking in hope but somehow gain that feeling in the end; the gift of the Christmas spirit makes itself known. Also, the elements of the film need to have an aura of aloofness for the audience, meaning it can’t take itself too seriously. Giving the story a mood that is less than joyous will lead to a combative response when the climax enlists the “Christmas miracle.”

For example, everyone loves the animated version of HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. It’s an hour-long cartoon that gets its message of redemption through in the safe space of nostalgia; the animation automatically links the audience to Dr. Seuss’ illustrations and their childhood. However, the live-action version has received a polarizing response since its theatrical release. The main point of its dissent is that the Grinch is ugly in reality, whose story is told in a lot of expansive detail, complete with disgusting habits. Invoking a harsh reality of bullying and defense mechanisms softens the uplifting reward of the miracle.

In the latest ensemble holiday flick COLLATERAL BEAUTY, we have a huge discourse created by using Christmas movie elements of hope and self-redemption and combining them with a story of loss and business logic. This also creates a tale of two movies: one in which we find ourselves trying to be emotionally invested, and the other which is awful and does nothing to affirm a reason for certain characters to be involved.

Howard (Will Smith) is still angry about the passing of his daughter. As the holidays approach, he decides to write letters to abstract notions that were central to his beliefs in humanity: Time, Love, and Death. Meanwhile, his business partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña), have been experiencing their company tailspin since Howard is stuck in his own personal hell. To save the company, they need to sell it now, but their leader is unresponsive to meetings and questions.

Will Smith leads all-star cast in COLLATERAL BEAUTY. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

So, after hiring a private investigator that finds his letters, the trio decides to hire actors to play his abstracts, and make him seem crazy to gain control. Brigitte (Helen Mirren) will play Death, Raffi (Jacob Latimore) will portray Time, and Amy (Keira Knightley) reluctantly agrees to take on the role of Love. As they go about meeting Robert, each actor reports to one of the business partners, where we learn about death, time, and love.

If it sounds like a twisted version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, it could be. Instead of Scrooge learning a lesson from his life and changing his ways, it’s three Scrooges trying to make money off their emotionally crippled friend and not really learning anything. To make matters worse, they lay the sap on real thick to compensate for them being terrible people. THEY STRUGGLE ALL MOVIE WITH IT YOU GUYS, IT WAS A TOUGH DECISION!

The fact that they keep the story’s focus on these people detracts from seeing Howard reconcile with a harsh reality. By blending two different narratives, when we see Howard, it’s just moments that are there to give the movie emotional impact. One moment that is particularly cringe-worthy is when Howard finally has the courage to come to a support group he’d been lingering around until then. Before his entrance, there is a survivor telling her story and the director, David Frankel, decides to do a slow zoom to a close-up as she is sharing her grief. It’s as if he was just sitting there thinking “the audience really needs to know that this specific moment is meant to make them feel.”

In all honesty, that’s what COLLATERAL BEAUTY turns out to be in the end: a movie with a character we want to believe in, surrounded by characters/plot points we don’t believe in; the holiday spirit guided by emotional money shots. Distracting the viewer from Howard with this business coup, weakens any connection to the character. This brings out the cynicism and kills any redemption of being considered Christmas fluff.

It’s a shame because you are this close to being pulled in by Howard’s journey and Smith’s performance, embracing the holiday sap you wanted to get lost in as the first scene opens. And it might’ve worked if it had just been Howard being visited by abstracts to help him heal. But the only reason we should focus on the “collateral beauty” is so the audience is distracted from the harsh reality of a melodramatic mess.

COLLATERAL BEAUTY opens on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.