Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 23, 2017)
From 1995 to 2008, Will Smith reigned as arguably the world’s biggest movie star. After late 2008’s Seven Pounds, though, Smith, took a three and a half year break from acting and he’s been unable to regain his prior prominence.
When he returned, 2012’s Men In Black 3 did fairly well, though it didn’t live up to expectations. 2016’s Suicide Squad also became a hit, but that seemed more due to the franchise itself than Smith, as I didn’t get the sense his presence buoyed box office receipts.
Outside of those two films, Smith’s post-2008 efforts have struggled to find an audience, and late 2016’s Collateral Beauty failed to alter than trajectory. Even with a relatively small $36 million budget, the movie didn’t appear to turn a profit, and it didn’t seem to do much to reinvigorate Smith’s career.
Going back to his rapping days as the Fresh Prince, I always liked Smith, so I hope he can get back on track. I also give him enough benefit of the doubt to plop Beauty in my player.
After a tragedy, successful ad executive Howard Inlet (Smith) goes inward and shuns society. To deal with his pain, Howard composes letters addressed to “Love”, “Time” and “Death”.
To Howard’s surprise, he receives responses, as physical manifestations of these concepts converse with him. Through these interactions, Howard attempts to work through his depression.
Look up “deceptive trailers” and you may find a reference to Beauty. If you watch the film’s ads, you’ll think that Howard encounters actual representations of Death, Time and Love, but that doesn’t seem to occur.
Instead, the movie tells us that actors portray Death, Time and Love. Howard’s business partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd), and she discovers the letters Howard sends. In an attempt to break Howard out of his funk, Whit comes up with the idea to hire people to portray Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley) and Time (Jacob Latimore).
Again, if you watch the trailers, you’ll never anticipate this shift, as the promos leave us with a clear impression that Beauty will go down a more literal Christmas Carol-style path. Granted, we can’t sense if Death, Time and Love are supposed to be real or in Howard’s head, but the ads don’t hint that they’ll come via actors.
The film itself can’t make up its mind either. I don’t want to risk spoilers, but Beauty wants to have its fantasy and eat it too, so expect a film that can’t decide what reality it wants to depict.
Really, Beauty tries to embrace both the “real world” and the more magical domain, choices that cause problems. If the film can’t adhere to its own rules, then the audience seems less likely to invest in it. All the questions related to the nature of Time, Death and Love harm the movie in the end.
This may seem like a minor gripe, but I think it gets to the heart of Beauty’s problems. The movie plays fast and loose with its sensibilities, so the viewer loses touch with it.
If we want to believe that we see actual human actors as Love, Death and Time, we find inconsistencies and problems. If we want to accept Love, Death and Time as physical constructs of those concepts, we encounter different but equally pernicious issues.
That’s because screenwriter Allan Loeb doesn’t appear to have given much thought to consistency or logic. He seems so enamored with his “clever” ideas that he never thinks about how they work in the real world.
Take the Sally the private investigator. She needs to be nearly magical to pull off her feats – and maybe she is a fictional construct, though unlike Time, Love and Death, the movie never even hints that she’s less than flesh and blood.
Assuming that we do accept Sally as real, she comes across as the slickest detective ever, and she performs questionable feats with aplomb. All of this furthers the flimsy plot but these activities threaten to detach the viewer from acceptable of the narrative.
Loeb’s script seems lazy and sloppy, as he refuses to pin down facets of the movie’s ideas and he selects illogical solutions to questions that can be solved in easier, more sensible ways. To get Howard’s letters, Sally manages to dig up a key that lets her illegally steal mail. I can think of other simpler, more believable ways for Howard’s partners to gain access to these missives, but Loeb chooses the least realistic of the bunch.
Perhaps Loeb hoped the viewer would become so distracted with these bizarre lapses in logic that the movie’s cheesiness and mawkishness would go by the wayside. Sentimental to an extreme, Beauty works relentlessly to prompt tears, but no actual feelings result, as the film’s ham-fisted stabs at emotion fall flat.
The movie’s inconsistent tone doesn’t help. Beauty seems oddly jaunty much of the time, as if it’s a comedy crammed into tearjerker status. Some comedic relief would be fine, but the film jumps all over the place, and its lack of stable emotional balance becomes yet another hindrance.
Many predictable plot points harm the project as well. Once again, I don’t want to get into spoilers, but a potentially major twist at the end shouldn’t surprise anyone. Beauty telegraphs its big finale in such an obvious way that the climax elicits more groans than tears.
At a mere 96 minutes, Beauty feels rushed and condensed. This especially impacts the characters, as we don’t get to know them as well as we should.
Beauty provides a token glimpse of Howard and company pre-tragedy, but that’s not enough to establish their personalities. If we had more time with Howard and the others, we’d care more about their journeys, but the film rushes matters and leaves us detached from the roles.
The movie does boast an excellent cast, and they threaten to add a little spark to the proceedings – honestly, any pleasure that comes from Beauty relates to the actors. However, they can only do so much, and they can’t overcome the badly flawed script given to them.
Packed with cheap emotion and little honesty, Collateral Beauty doesn’t do much right. Aspects of the project show promise but the end result sputters and fails to find firm footing.