Tuesday, August 8, 2017
SAVAGE CINEMA DEBUTS: "COLLATERAL BEAUTY" (2016)
Screenplay Written by Allan Loeb
Directed by David Frankel
1/2* (one half of one star)
Yes, Will, I understand the look on your face. Your movie really is this terrible, this insincere and definitely, this stupid.
Dear readers, I have to begin this latest posting with a statement followed by a question. First the statement: It is truly rare to find a mainstream Hollywood movie so ill conceived, presented and executed as this one. And now the question: What in the world has happened to Will Smith? To begin, I have to address the question. For essentially 30 years, Will Smith has proven himself, over and over again, to being one of our most engaging, magnetic and consistently surprising performers in music, television and of course, the movies.
With regards to his work in film, he has consistently impressed with the sharpness of his specialized brand of humor, intensity, humanity and seemingly unshakable focus in work that is as widely varied as what he displayed in the chamber theater piece of Fred Schepisi's "Six Degrees Of Separation" (1993), the science fiction popcorn of both Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day" (1996) and Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men In Black" (1997), the romantic comedy heights of Andy Tennant's "Hitch" (2005), the wrenching drama of Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit Of Happyness" (2006), the solo existential horror of Francis Lawrence's "I Am Legend" (2007) and his startling, epic portrayal of Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's brilliant, impressionistic art film "Ali" (2001).
Certainly, I have not been a fan of every film Smith has chosen to be a part of, but even so, he has continuously displayed an unquestionable command and charisma that makes him a compulsively watchable actor, one who is able to showcase a rapid fire wit and intellect, bracing physicality and a gravitas filled with power and poignancy. Yet, in recent years, whatever magic touch Will Smith happened to hold over critics and audiences has lost some of its luster with increasingly poor film choices, including David Ayer's disastrous "Suicide Squad" (2016). Yet somehow, Smith has now headlined what has got to be his most ridiculous, painfully manipulative, mind numbingly saccharine and stunningly insincere piece of clap-trap pablum to date.
Director David Frankel's horrifically titled "Collateral Beauty," is a would-be, two hankie, "inspirational" drama of love, loss and renewal but it is in actuality a tonal trainwreck filled from one end to the other with a cavalcade of selfish characters, a level of manipulation that steamrolls past normal cruelty and plot twists abound that will have you howling in laughter or agony or some variation of both at the screen. Yes, this movie is that bad. Just unforgivably bad. In fact, I would claim that it is essentially a big budget, A list starring vehicle that is nothing more than the worst Hallmark or Lifetime holiday movie you've ever witnessed, but that would be an insult to Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movies. For you see, those movies are more honest than any one moment presented in "Collateral Beauty."
"Collateral Beauty" stars Will Smith as Howard Inlet, a high powered advertising executive who is thrown into a clinical depression after the death of his 6 year old daughter. Over the three year period during which Howard falls deeper into his grief, his estranged friends and business partners, Whit Yardshaw (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and Simon Scott (Michael Pena), all attempt to help bring Howard through his mourning process--which includes copious late night bicycle rides and the stalking of bereaved parents support group meetings--to absolutely no avail.
After desperately writing and mailing angry letters to nothing less than Time, Love and Death, Howard is soon visited by physical manifestations of each abstraction (played by Jacob Latimore, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren, respectively)...or are they?
And of course, the whole story takes place during the Christmas season. Ugh!
Now, I have to admit, that as a concept, I really have no issue with "Collateral Beauty" (except for that downright awful title) at all. In fact, if it was a film that was perhaps handled more artfully-or even as a straightforward commercial feature for God's sakes, more honestly and much more willing to fully commit to the subject matter of this potentially powerful and disturbing existential material, we could have had a truly harrowing and/or heart-aching drama on our hands.
As I watched this film, I was reminded starkly of the visually dynamic and emotionally resonant life, death and afterlife drama, Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come" (1998) starring the late Robin Williams in a film that encompassed love, marriage, parental bereavement, suicide, Heaven, Hell and reincarnation and all presented with a palpable urgency, wonder and matter-of-fact quality that I believed in everything that I was witnessing regardless of how fantastical the sights. For you see, "What Dreams May Come" was emotionally true.
David Frankel's "Collateral Beauty" is painfully artificial by contrast. Certainly I am somewhat able to see why Will Smith may have been attracted to a project like this one as it may have placed him back within the similar territory of a film like Gabriele Muccino's "Seven Pounds" (2008), a film that did carry a dark resonance even when it did show some strain with credibility due to the convolutions of its plot. "Collateral Beauty," however is nothing but the epitome of convoluted plots all crashing together without any sense of style, storytelling skill or semblance of how real people behave and for that matter, any honest empathy in a film riddled with so much conceived but ineffectual pain and suffering.
Yes, the film hinges on a few plot twists, so to speak...or better yet, some sense of revelation(s), which as a your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, I will not reveal in full here--but I am so, so tempted to do so with the full intent of saving you from wasting one minute of your life on a film this ridiculous. But here goes...
Essentially, what I gained from "Collateral Beauty" is that the process of grief exists on a finite timetable as determined not by the one who is grieving but by everyone who surrounds that person in question. What I mean is how the characters all portrayed by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena (who all clearly lost bets in order to be forced to appear in this nonsense) each talk a great game about how Will Smith's character is their great friend but they also complain bitterly about the lengthiness of his grieving process, a process that truly has left him in a clinically depressed state of mind and reason for three years. But hold on, their "concern" is not due to any worries about Smiths mental health. Oh no, everything is tied to a potential business deal that is crucial Smith's character needs to attend to post haste. (Granted, saving the careers of your employees is nothing to sneeze at but even so, every reference to Smith's character's grief is tied to the business. How heartwarming...)
So, essentially plot twist #1 involves the friends playing with Smith's mental health in order to declare him incapacitated...therefore nullifying his presence for any of his business dealings! With "friends" like these...
But what of Time, Love and Death? Well, they do figure into the film but mostly for Norton, Winslet and Pena who are all dealing with variations of those themes with regards to fractured family relationships, fatal illnesses and being a workaholic at the expense of having a family life. This is layered on as subtly as a vat of maple syrup on top of one lonely little pancake and it also creates a tonal mess for the film as a whole as we are subjected to passages of light comedy, romantic and otherwise, crashing alongside would-be wrenching drama. Furthermore, all of the story threads are present enough that it gives the film's core, Will Smith, complete short shrift in his own movie!
Then there is plot twist #2 which involves an extremely pushy bereaved parent's support group therapist (played by Naomie Harris) who just badgers Smith's character over and again throughout the film for some sort of psychological release he is unable to deliver, so much so that it again presents the idea that grief exists for others to determine how long one should grieve and how. But then, even this plot thread grows to the point of being an absolute howler in the final scenes. Trust me, you will raise your arms straight upwards in disbelief and reach for the first thing to hurl at your screens in protest.
But what of Will Smith's performance? Well...I guess it was fine but it is indeed all relative considering it is in the service of a film this dumbly shallow. I mean--he gives each moment that standard commitment and his requisite monologues are well delivered. But this seems to be a movie that again, knows nothing and cares even less about the nature of grief as Smith is essentially seen in the film with an ever present scowl, he looks sad, he rides his bicycle the wrong way in nighttime traffic, he barely eats and sleeps, and he makes elaborate domino mazes only to destroy them (like the building blocks of his life?). He is inconsolable because the script says he is yet he is also 100% cognizant when the script needs him to be and again, it is all so shamelessly shallow and not at all in the same league as his best performances by a long shot.
Dear readers, it was as if David Frankel had not even decided what kind of a film he even wanted "Collateral Beauty" to be for the subject matter needed to carry some weight but not too much weight as this is a Christmas movie designed to be a tear-jerker but nothing really depressing. For that matter, I don't even think that he even really figured out precisely what he even wanted that terrible title to even mean. It's just maudlin, saccharine safeness for the masses but really, the masses deserve so much better.