Will Smith continues to make decisions…definitely some decisions.
You may have heard of a surreal holiday film that critics have been competing to roast the deepest, one that stars Will Smith and that’s premise is less believable than many shows airing on Adult Swim’s darkest witching hours. It has a great cast that act their hearts out, but its audience should be as stoned as those flipping through late night cartoons.
Directed by David Frankel, a recent dealer of sap who you’ll know from his movies The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, Collateral Beauty has two modes: dead-dog schmaltz and the-dog-was-a-ghost-all-along absurdity. Allan Loeb wrote the script, saying, “It’s something that I’ve meditated on for a couple of years.” He also wrote Here Comes the Boom, which presumably took less meditation.
The premise, which you probably know half of from its intentionally misleading trailer or all of from an intentionally gleeful review (I recommend Alan Scherstuhl’s) is that Will Smith’s character lost his young daughter. Grieving for two years in the kind of can’t-be-fired executive position at an advertising company, he hasn’t done anything with his life but stop talking, make elaborate domino structures, and write pseudo-poetic letters to the concepts of Death (Helen Mirren, which how dare a movie tempt fate like that in 2016?), Time (Jacob Latimore, wearing a hoodie and called a thug), and Love (Keira Knightley). His business partners (and ostensibly friends) hire actors to represent these abstractions so they can prove he’s crazy and oust his voting power in order to sell their company.
What follows are ten facts about the weirdness, the treacle, the plot spoilers and twists that will inevitably make this movie a holiday disaster, while hopefully sating your need for cinematic schadenfreude.
1. Smith gets many titles during the run of this film
Including Poet-Philosopher of Product, Rebel Command of Brand, and Local Domino Champion of Crazytown. One of his first lines is “What is your why?” which is the first and not last time I as an audience member worried that I’d had a stroke. We all know cool guys don’t look at explosions, but Smith doesn’t even look at toppling domino buildings. He starts the chain and leaves on important business, which we later find is sitting crosslegged in his unlit apartment staring at nothing until another sun rises on his movie’s unending succession of depressing days.
2. The film contains many lines that seem unintentionally self-referential:
“When something starts with a six year-old dying, nothing is gonna feel right.”
“Have you thought this idea through? No.”
“It’s all a bunch of intellectual bullshit.”
“Anyways, it’s a first draft.”
3. At one point we watch an entire fake Mexican commercial for a psychoactive drug meant to get rid of anger.
Anger is represented by a large red Sesame Street-style monster mascot that breaks into a classroom to fight a teacher who’s yelling at his students, which reminds Edward Norton’s character about personification. Ah yes, he thinks, this is how problems can be solved.
4. The co-workers (let’s go with co-workers because of how rarely friends gaslight each other for the express purpose of declaring legal incompetency) hire an elderly private eye – the same one that caused Norton’s character to get divorced – to follow Smith’s character.
This is how they find out about his letters (one apiece) to Death, Love, and Time. She steals them. From a mailbox. She pays $800 for a key so that she can commit a federal crime against a guy mourning his daughter. I don’t know what these schmucks are paying her but it’s not enough.
5. Smith lingers outside a grief support group.
Specifically for people who’ve lost children, whom we hear say things like “My son said he’s not coming back to our house, he’s going home” while the camera slowly consumes their tears as it closes in like a greedy demon.
He goes inside after being confronted by Death at a dog park. Inside he says nothing, is followed by the group leader, and leaves her for a dramatic domino montage. He misses a session and asks what he missed. “People crying about their dead kids.” Smith chuckles. Then they say the title back and forth maybe ten times without explaining it.
6. The co-workers all have half-assed stories that are crazy in their own right.
Norton lost his daughter in the divorce and she prefers her mom’s new rich boyfriend that takes her to Hamilton with his friend Odell Beckham Jr. He tells Knightley that when his daughter was born, he didn’t feel love. He had become love.
Michael Peña has the telltale cough and bloodied hankie of a frail Victorian damsel. When asked if he’s dying, he responds “Everyone’s dying.”
Kate Winslet unprofessionally looks at sperm donor websites at work, has plenty of pamphlets, and speaks maybe five lines. Latimore tells her she’ll make a great mom, but only after she paid him $20,000 in cash and he told her his dad is a PCP dealer that gave him Brave New World. You’d think those things have nothing to do with one another and you’d be right. But you’re also not a professional Hollywood screenwriter, so what do you know?
7. Will Smith sings a tearful, heartfelt rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on a crowded NYC subway as a close to his argument with Death.
When he says “Life is but a dream,” he really means it. You can tell he’s trying to wake up to when he was in Independence Day.
8. The videos taken by the private detective (and then apparently altered by Industrial Light & Magic to remove those pesky actors from the iPhone footage) are played on a dozen ridiculously fancy sci-fi television screens at a conference room confrontation.
If these advertising execs spent less money on digitally removing A-listers and thrown skateboards from low-res footage, maybe their business wouldn’t be in such trouble.
These next two bullets contain the movie’s two twists, the ones you’ll believe even less than the rest of the plot. But trust me, a quick scroll will serve you far better than Collateral Beauty’s 1h 37m runtime.
9. That grief counselor, the one Smith keeps barging in on? Well on Christmas Eve, she’s watching a video of her dead kid dancing with the kid’s dad. Surprise, it was Will Smith.
It’s their kid.
They were married the whole time and treated each other like strangers in the film’s second instance of crazy social deception. This fades into an Ok Go music video of dominoes, sad music, and flashbacks. Their dead kid is terrible at toppling dominoes – she just smacks them all off. No wonder Smith spends all his time crafting huge displays. They’re finally safe from her wanton mitts now.
10. The final twist, the last reveal in a movie of stupid reveals and constant self-questioning, is when Smith and his reconciled wife walk under a bridge in a park.
On the bridge are the actors playing Love, Death, and Time.
Smith looks up and sees them. His wife looks up….and there’s nothing there.
All those editing costs for nothing – they were mystical forces the entire time! Why did these ghostly abstractions charge those ad execs so much money? Do the forces of nature really put on off-off Broadway productions? All I can venture as a hypothesis is that Smith finds some sort of comfort in movies where his family members are dead.