Howard Inlet (Will Smith) was a high-flying, smooth-talking New York marketing whizz, until two years ago when his six year old daughter died. He returned to work eighteen months later, but his understandable change of character has left him shut down and closed off to all around him. His work has suffered, and the business he co-owns with best friend Whit (Edward Norton) may go under unless something can be done. After hiring a private investigator, Whit – along with colleagues Simon (Michael Pena) and Claire (Kate Winslet) – discover that as part of his recovery process Howard has written letters to the entities of Love, Death and Time, so the trio decide to hire actors to portray these facets of the world and confront Howard, in an attempt to prove he is crazy so he’ll be forced to sign his ownership of the business over to them.
I’ve got some venting to do, and I tried to write this review devoid of spoilers but I’m afraid I failed, so I’ll be giving out information from everything, up to and including the last scenes of the film; sorry about that. If you want a basic opinion – don’t see this film. It’s awful. It’s not even enjoyably bad, it’s awards-craving by-the-numbers drivel with only a couple of performances making it anywhere near watchable. Now we’ve got that out of the way, consider everything from here on out to have a big red SPOILER WARNING sign above it.
One thing I hate about trailers is how they can lie to you and present an entirely different film to the one that will eventually be screened. In the trailers for Collateral Beauty, it is made apparent that Howard is visited by the literal anthropomorphised personifications of three facets of reality: Love, Death and Time, when in actuality they are actors (Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Jacob Latimore) from a nearby failing theatre troupe, who agree to the roles in return for hefty payment to save their production. The premise of a man being visited by these ethereal beings is certainly an interesting one, and one that whilst I didn’t necessarily think would end up with a film that I’d be the primary audience for, it might still have some novel scenes here and there. Removing that premise does two things: firstly, it makes the film a great deal less interesting, eliminating any fantastical elements, and secondly, it paves the way for what is a truly uncomfortable story. Yes, Howard’s friends have good intentions behind their plan to prove he is crazy – they are all senior members of his company, a company built upon the confident personality of their leader and his personable demeanour and relationships with many of their key clients, and if the company shuts down, their many employees will all be out of work – but their methods are way beyond questionable. Hiring a private investigator is justifiable, but the purpose of hiring the actors turns out to be so that the PI can film Howard having conversations with each of them in public, then the video footage can be doctored to remove the person he is talking to. That is way, way illegal, right? And if it’s not illegal, it falls off a pretty damn high ethical cliff. To be fair, a couple of the characters voice concerns about setting Howard up like this – most notably Winslet’s Claire and Knightley’s Amy/Love, because of course only women have consciences – but nowhere near enough.
You know what really irked me about the trailers telling an alternate story to the film? They didn’t. The trailers show Helen Mirren as being Death. The film then sells you on her being an actress named Brigitte. In the final damn shot of the film, however, it’s revealed that yep, she really is Death. Knightley’s Amy really is Love, and Jacob Latimore’s Raffi really is the human embodiment of Time. Imagine if the trailers for The Sixth Sense hinted at Bruce Willis’ character being dead, but then the film led you to believe he was alive, until that scene where all is revealed. What a rollercoaster of trust you must go through! What’s even more annoying is that I called it less than halfway through the film, at which point I sat back and watched the pieces all be neatly assembled like Howard and his damn dominoes, all sat in a line and falling over, one by one, to leave nothing but a mess to clean up afterwards.
Before we get back to Howard – and believe me, we really need to get back to Howard – I want to tidy up this nonsense with the entities, What with there being three of them, and three so-called-friends, it’s no surprise that they get paired up to undertake their missions and, wouldn’t you know it, but each friend has a problem that their individually assigned entity is exactly relevant to. What a coincidence! Edward Norton’s Whit is paired up with Love, because initially he fancies Keira Knightley (understandable), but she helps him to learn more about parental love (not in that way, that’s disgusting, get out) and come to terms with his young daughter hating him for cheating on her mother and breaking their family apart. It should be mentioned that Norton only agrees to reconnect with his daughter and, y’know, be a fucking parent, because Knightley agrees to see him again if he does, but we’ll not dwell on that point. Michael Pena’s Simon is paired up with Death because, shock horror, he’s dying. It’s one of those illnesses that is plot-dependant, in that he only has violent coughing or vomiting fits when he’s either alone of around Death, and never at any other time. Convenient, right? Well it turns out he hasn’t told anyone, not even his wife or son, and is very concerned about their wellbeing after his inevitable and imminent demise. Death convinces him that he should tell them, and he does. Finally, Kate Winslet’s Claire is matched with Time, because she’s dedicated her life to the company and has never found the TIME to settle down and have a family, and now she’s concerned about finding a donor and having a child on her own. It’s never all that clear what exactly her dilemma is – she keeps looking at websites and flyers, but that’s about it. Time advises her to get on with it, and she does. These are three of the most predictable, dull, entirely unoriginal plot strands ever played in a theatre. As soon as we meet Whit’s daughter and she mouths of at him, it’s obvious that by the end they’ll be connected. Claire’s change happens entirely within her own mind, which always makes for damn exciting stuff, and Simon has the misfortune to be the first person in the film to cough into a handkerchief, therefore his days are well and truly numbered.
My main problem could be that I’m perhaps too film literate. That’s not a boast, it just means that I’ve seen a lot of films, and I know the early onset signs of a pre-planned character arc when I see one. Also, it means I’ve picked up on when I’m being shown things and when things are being hidden, something that Howard’s storyline wasn’t planning on. You see, as I mentioned earlier, Howard lost his daughter when she was six. Her age is briefly passed over, her name is never said, and neither is her cause of death. In fact, a point is made of how Howard cannot even bring himself to say these things. Eventually he forces himself to attend a support group for parents who have lost young children, and his unwillingness to contribute gave me flashbacks to Hancock’s similar scenes. The group is led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who shows a quick connection with Howard, and the two bond further after the session, when she reveals she too lost a daughter, she was six years old, her name was Olivia, and she died of a form of cancer with a specific set of initials that I can’t remember. As soon as this information was provided, a completed puzzle formed in my mind that I just had to wait out the film for. In this post-session meet-cute, Howard and Naomie also discuss that they both lost contact with their respective spouse after the respective death of their respective child, and that they parted on terms of wanting to be strangers. You may see where this is going. I hope you do, because it made it pretty damn clear in the film – Howard and Naomie were married, they had the same daughter, and the only person involved in this scene who doesn’t know the full picture is the audience. This film was so damn predictable that after a while I even knew exactly how certain scenes would be staged, and how the camera would move to reveal things. The penultimate shot of the three beings on the bridge, I called that sucker beat for beat.
OK, so the film has a lot of problems, but it’s not all terrible. The actors are all universally fine-to-good, except for Helen Mirren who is an absolute delight. She’s essentially the leader of the acting troupe, and plays the role-hungry actor to a tee, intent on taking over all the roles in case the others don’t play them properly. She is one of the few people who seems like they’re having any fun making the film too. Norton tries to bring some moments of humour and levity, but for the most part they fall flat, more due to the intensely depressing nature of the story than any fault of his. This is a plot revolving around the extreme, all-consuming grief of a man whose young child died, with sub-plots involving dying spouses, elderly parents with dementia, children coping with divorce and an entire room full of people who also lost children, this isn’t the place for shoe-horning a romantic comedy, which makes the fact that this is a Christmas movie all the more questionable too. It’s pretty clear this was conceived as Will Smith’s latest attempt to win an Academy Award, and everyone else signed on in the hopes of receiving a supporting nomination, but this film has nothing coming its way. Smith even has a montage of scenes at his most acting-y, yelling and breaking down at the three entities in turn, to provide the footage that will later be doctored by the investigator. Like I said, everyone is at least fine here, but I didn’t emotionally connect with anyone. Was that due to the sheer magnitude of cynicism I carry around with me at all times? Perhaps, but I’m sure this film’s dreadful plot and jarring tonal leaps didn’t help much either.
Choose Life 3/10