There were times while watching Collateral Beauty that I found myself thinking "Adam Sandler would have been perfect for this film."
That's never a good sign.
With an all-star cast that may suggest it's getting released just in time for awards season, Collateral Beauty may instead serve to illustrate the brilliance of a film like Manchester by the Sea, a trauma-centered drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan that does everything right while Collateral Beauty does damn near everything wrong.
The film centers around Howard (Will Smith), a successful New York City ad executive who's entire life is devastated when tragedy strikes his six-year-old daughter. Grief-stricken and unable to rebound, Howard's devastation is so thorough that he begins to live a near hermit-like existence that threatens to destroy his company. He begins to write letters, not to his daughter or to the daughter or anything like that but to abstract concepts such as Death, Time and Love. When three co-workers (played Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena) catch on to his letters, they concoct a plan to have the three confrontational concepts personified by actors, played here by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore, with a plan to videotape the conversations and manipulate the entire scenario in an effort to boot Howard and save the agency. Oh wait, no really. They just want to "reach him." Um, yeah. Sure. That's the ticket.
Sigh. Just sigh.
Director David Frankel has an Academy Award (Best Live Action Short, Dear Diary) and an Emmy Award (Entourage) to his name, though his feature film record is infinitely more spotty ranging from the delightful The Devil Wears Prada to the marginal at best Marley & Me and Hope Springs. I suppose he does deserve bonus points for somehow bringing a birdwatching comedy, The Big Year, to the big screen. Unfortunately, with Collateral Beauty Frankel is even more weepy and manipulative than he was with Marley & Me, a reasonably successful film at the box-office despite not even coming close to the warmth and sentimentality of the far more popular book.
There are hints of Sandler's Reign Over Me in Collateral Beauty, though this film taps more into histrionics than anything resembling an authentic emotion. There are those who will find Collateral Beauty to be a satisfying tearjerker, though these are likely the same people who cried over the death of their pet rock and who were suicidal the day their imaginary spouse divorced them.
It takes a special kind of filmmaker to ruin a film with stars like Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren and even Naomie Harris. Will Smith? Oh sure, he's got some acting cred but he has a whole lot more acting crud.
Of course, there's a reason that Collateral Beauty being released during the holidays, its faux Dickensian tendencies preposterously slathered into writer Allan Loeb's faux naturale landscapes that can't begin to mask rather sadistic tendencies that we're expected to believe will be redeemed once we learn the co-worker's backstories.
Sorry, folks. Redemption ain't that easy.
Will Smith has had a knack as of late for tackling seemingly meaningful projects that actually say almost nothing, though certainly Concussion was a surprising and mostly winning deviation from that trend. Smith has tackled meaty roles before, of course, but they've been roles with limited range. Here, Smith is being called upon to cover the full spectrum of humanity.
To put it bluntly, he simply can't do it. While I'll be the first one to admire an actor stretching himself, when that stretching comes within the framework of a misguided, overwrought script and actors (Mirren, anyone?) who seem to realize at some point that this potentially good idea has gone wildly awry then you're stuck with a bad performance in a bad film where the only one who seems to be having a good time is the six-year-old daughter who doesn't have to deal with all this drivel.
There are so many poor choices being made here, from the unethical bordering on illegal core concept to a weird twisty thing involving Howard's attendance at a grief support group led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris) that makes no sense and really only serves to muddle things up more.
The worst thing here, perhaps, is that it seems to be Frankel's direction that convolutes everything. While my acting background is admittedly limited, there's not much worse a director can do than leave his cast out there hanging. It's clear from virtually every performance that no one has a clue what Frankel is going for here with the entire ensemble, even usual dependables like Mirren and Norton, overplaying the film's mystical qualities and taking it all too damn seriously. Even worse, the film's humor is woefully misused and often comes at the expense of a distraight, suicidal Howard or, even worse, his daughter.
There are moments, very fleeting ones, when one gets a glimpse of the film that Collateral Beauty might have been. Unfortunately, five minutes of quality cinema do not a feature film make. Destined to be remembered by this year's Razzie voters, Collateral Beauty is easily one of 2016's worst films.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic