Back in 2008, it seemed entirely reasonable to expect that Will Smith's career would never get stranger than Seven Pounds, a film in which his character (spoiler) commits suicide-by-jellyfish as part of an elaborate Oprah-by-way-of-Oskar-Schindler redemption scheme. And yet here we are.
Screenwriters take heart, because the following pitch did not result in someone getting forcibly removed from the lot: Collateral Beauty is about three executives at a New York City advertising firm who want to push its co-founder out of the company because he's so crushed by grief over the death of his daughter a couple years earlier, he can no longer do his job. When they hear he's been writing letters to the abstract concepts of Love, Time, and Death, they hire three out-of-work actors to embody those roles and harangue him like Ebenezer Scrooge's ghosts. The plan is to get him to rant and rave at the actors on camera, scrub them out digitally, and use his loosened grip on reality to gobble up his share of the company.
And that's just the half of it. Collateral Beauty may be crazier than the suicide-by-jellyfish movie, but they're two sides of the same coin. Seven Pounds is about a man coping with guilt over his negligence in an accident that killed seven people. Collateral Beauty is about a man coping with the loss of a child. Both are about Hollywood's astonishing inability to cope with serious personal issues of any kind. And how the best it can do is invent some ridiculous apparatus that's intended to be redemptive and therapeutic, but in reality serves to distance us from emotions too difficult to face head on. "Strange" is one word to describe it. "Cowardly" is a more accurate one.
Collateral Beauty opens with Howard (Smith), a charismatic and upbeat leader, rallying the troops with a speech about how love, time, and death connect every human being on earth. "We long for love," he says. "We wish we had more time. We fear death." (How understanding these core philosophical precepts will help the sales staff land big corporate accounts is best not contemplated.) Cut to three years later and Howard is a hollow, gray-haired shell of his former self, reduced to the metaphorical labor of setting up and knocking down dominos for days on end.
With the firm facing an existential crisis, Howard's partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) hatch the plan to wrest away his shares of the company. To that end, Whit recruits the members of a struggling theater troupe (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) to play Love, Time, and Death, as if they're specters only Howard can hallucinate. They also have some issues of their own that need sorting out: Whit is recently divorced and his daughter won't speak to him; Claire's career has wiped out her plans for motherhood, so she spends her days clicking soberly through a sperm donor website; and Simon is having trouble opening up with loved ones about his declining health.
Jean-Luc Godard once said, "The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie," and in that spirit, Collateral Beauty may be sharing the multiplex with its harshest critic. Manchester by the Sea is also about a grief-stricken man who retreats from society and himself, but it has the honesty to face the beast head-on, rather than shield itself with conceptual gobbledygook. There's no sadder film this year, but no better one, either, because it takes grief seriously as a theme and sees it through to an extraordinarily difficult conclusion.
Collateral Beauty is certainly absurd on its face, but it's not necessarily abnormal for a Hollywood that keeps reality at arm's length, even when it's making dramas about the human condition. As Will Smith vehicles go, it's no less alien than effects-driven mega-hits like Men In Black or Independence Day—two movies about actual aliens. It has nothing to teach us about how to process a profound loss. It does, however, have something to say about what passes for "serious" in a studio film in 2016.