Huh… so you click random buttons without knowing where they lead? Well this time you’ve found my “secret” review! You see, the first draft of the Collateral Beauty review clocked in at over 1700 words, which is about 1300 words longer than an average post and 1000 longer than my longest. The movie infuriated me so much that immediately after it ended I started typing and just couldn’t stop. As you probably saw, the published post was much shorter version, but this page is for the full, original review (but, you know, with edits)! The Chwineka Cut has been released!
Howard (Mr. Will Smith) is mourning the loss of his daughter two years from… something. Stop asking questions, like what her name is or what she died of! Anyway, he never got over it and his life has been frozen in place. This is a problem, not just because he builds domino structures that he knocks over days later or that he rides his bicycle into oncoming traffic (to feel something, I guess?), but also because he’s the majority shareholder at his company. His friends/coworkers Whit (Edward Norton), Simon (Michael Peña), and Claire (
Claire Danes Kate Winslet) are watching everything fall apart around him and feel helpless. A merger would save the company, but Howard is too catatonic to do anything about it, so it looks like the end.
Around this time we learn a little bit about our three plot movers: Whit cheated on his wife and now his daughter hates him, Simon has a baby and a wife without a name (we never see Whit’s wife but at least she gets a name!), and Claire keeps looking up information on babies. More on that later. After Whit meets a woman at a company audition, he follows her to a theater where she and two others are practicing for a play. The three actors are Amy (Keira Knightley), Brigitte (Helen Mirren), and Raffi (Jacob Latimore). Just ignore that Amy hesitates and looks to the left when she’s asked what her name is. Nothing suspicious here!
Shortly after, Whit devises a plan to save the company and it’s a fucking doozy. See, a private investigator (Ann Dowd) he hired “acquired” letters Howard mailed out to the abstract concepts of Love, Death, and Time. Don’t worry, the movie points out she committed a felony. Anyway, Whit convinces Simon and Claire that they should pay Amy, Brigitte, and Raffi to pretend to be Love, Death, and Time, respectively, and harass Howard in an attempt to prove that he’s not mentally fit to run the company. These are his friends coming up with this plan. His fucking friends.
I want to pause for a moment to talks about one of the many elements of this movie that infuriates me: anytime anyone does something bad, they’re immediately absolved of guilt. Howard’s friends are planning an elaborate betrayal against him (Brigitte correctly points out that this is gaslighting), but it’s okay! It’s not because they’re selfish, but because if they don’t do anything their company will collapse and everyone will get fired. Edward Norton is an especially aggravating example of this, as every dickish move he does is quickly rationalized or excused. He cheated on his wife? He’s aware enough to blame himself, estranged from his daughter, and reduced to living with his mother (who might have Alzheimer’s, but we never see her again so it doesn’t matter), so he is punished for his misdeed. He seemingly encourages his mother’s delusions, but quickly explains to his friends that this is better than forcing a confrontation by correcting her (which, by the way, is the correct thing to do). He’s a smug know-it-all when he first meets Amy, but he immediately implements her suggestion because he acknowledges her idea is better. Fucking hell, movie, if you didn’t want us to think he’s kind of a dick, then why make him kind of a dick? Your constant and immediate justifications for shady actions get tiring real quick.
Anyway, the plan is set into motion with the three friends splitting up and working with one of the three actors. Whit is paired with Amy/Love, who he is constantly hitting on while she wants to know about his daughter; Simon is paired with Brigitte/Death who notices his hacking cough; and Claire is paired with Raffi/Time who notices her pamphlets about sperm donors. Do you see? Do you fucking see?! They’re not just forcing Howard to work through his issues–they’re working through their own issues at the same time! Whit wants his daughter’s Love back, Simon is facing his impending Death, and Claire is worried she’s running out of Time! DON’T WORRY, THE MOVIE WILL REPEAT THIS IN CASE YOU DIDN’T GET IT THE FIRST THREE TIMES!!
Love, Death, and Time each visit Howard one at a time like ghosts from A Christmas Carol (I mean, this does take place right before Christmas). He doesn’t take it well because of course he wouldn’t. To make it worse, the friends and the PI show up during these encounters and pretend they don’t see who Howard is talking to, making him really think he’s going crazy. Around this time Howard starts visiting a therapy group for parents who lost children and meets Madeline (Naomie Harris), who is instantly interested in him. Her daughter’s name was Olivia and she died of a rare cancer. She also explains that her ex-husband wrote a note during their divorce wishing they could be strangers again. Then Madeline asks Howard what his daughter’s name was, but he runs away without answering. MAN, WHAT A STRANGE AND SUBTLE MOMENT! I WONDER IF THIS IS GOING TO COME UP AGAIN LATER?!
Realizing that making Howard think he’s going insane isn’t enough, his friends decide to send the actors in again, this time with the encounters filmed by the PI. How will that help their case? Well, they plan on seamlessly removing the actors from the video so it looks like Howard is yelling at nothing. Just don’t think about how that’s basically impossible to do convincingly with the technology we have right now. Back with Howard and Madeline, she explains the movie’s title: Back when her daughter was about to die, a woman whose face is hidden from the audience and definitely isn’t Helen Mirren tells her to look for the collateral beauty of the situation. She says this… to a mother… HOURS before her sick daughter died. The only thing worse is that a year later, Madeline understood what that meant because she… started crying? I still don’t fully understand, but who cares, we have someone in the movie saying the title. Ding!
So the digital removal job is perfect and the board is very concerned that Howard is on film screaming at nothing. He finally signs the papers that will allow the merger to happen, but he also takes the time to tell his friends that they did the right thing. Once again, the trio have to have their guilt washed away. Then he explains that he’d been paying attention over the last two years and has realized what’s going on with everyone; that Claire wants a family, that Simon is dying, and that Whit needs to do everything to get his daughter back. What’s clearly supposed to be a touching moment is absolutely ruined when you realize that in the two years he was completely unresponsive–while his company is falling apart around him and he didn’t lift a finger to save it–he was still observing everything around him. And doing nothing. Dozens if not hundreds of jobs were on the line! That’s not better! That’s so much worse! WHY DON’T YOU REALIZE HOW MUCH WORSE THAT IS, COLLATERAL BEAUTY?!
Then everything comes together. Whit gets his daughter to talk to him again, Claire is convinced she still has time to build a family, and Simon tells his wife that he’s dying. Meanwhile, Howard visits Madeline at her place. Hey, how come he knew where she lived? And why does she keep asking him what his dead daughter’s name is? Wait a minute… Howard is Madeline’s ex-husband, which means her daughter Olivia was also his daughter! What a complete shock! Who could have seen it coming, what with their dialogue filled with little moments where one of them accidentally implied that they had been a couple, or how strangely close they immediately were to each other? The whole “let’s be strangers again” was really just a device so that the audience wouldn’t necessarily know that they actually knew each other, which is… certainly a decision that was made. Guess we needed a twist.
But we’re not done with twists! Everyone is either happy or has made peace with their issues, but then we flashback to Madeline in the hospital the night her daughter died. We can finally see the asshole who mentioned the “collateral beauty,” and it’s… Brigitte? But that would suggest that the actors who portrayed Love, Death, and Time actually WERE Love, Death, and Time! The trio appear to Howard right at the end but are invisible to Madeline, reinforcing an idea that most people figured out an hour ago. Neither twist is subtle. Neither twist is good.
In case it’s not clear, this movie drives me crazy. It’s all just so… forced and inauthentic. It’s got all the ingredients for a drama that tugs at heartstrings with all the subtlety of a Hallmark original movie, but then you have the absolute bat shit insane premise. Howard’s best friends betrayed him, but it was for a good reason, so it’s okay! But it went so much deeper than he probably knows, so it’s bad. But it worked out in the end, so it’s okay again! What was most likely intended to be a quirky and creative way to get a man wallowing in grief to take steps towards embracing life again ended up making me wonder if his friends were sociopaths. You couldn’t think of any other ways to demonstrate his mental instability? Like, maybe, taking the fact that everyone in the company knows he’s basically a zombie who can’t make important decisions–or refuses to–and use that? You had to hire actors to provoke him into having emotional outbursts in public, all the while making him actually think he was going crazy? Fuck you guys, fuck this movie, fuck EVERYTHING about this!
…except not “everything.” See, nothing would be easier for me to just say, “I hate this! Half a star! 0 stars if Letterboxd had that option!” and call it a day. But some of the monologues are not bad. Keira Knightley’s last speech as Love in particular was–in my opinion–the best part of the movie. And Helen Mirren is clearly having fun and her presence improves whatever scene is happening, which usually counteracts how Michael Peña sleepwalks through his role. I’m sure some people enjoyed this and felt the emotions the movie wanted you to feel (it has a 64% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes), but I couldn’t get over how artificial and clunky everything felt. I just really hate this movie, you guys.
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