Director: David Frankel
Stars: Will Smith, Edward Norton
1 Globe (out of 5)
For starters, what in god’s green hell is “collateral beauty”? We’re not sure we could tell you, and we’ve seen the film called “Collateral Beauty.” Halfway through this white hot fever dream of a holiday movie, we get the token “let’s explains what the WTF title means” scene. It doesn’t help. It’s as though we’re hearing the results of a drunken round of Mad Libs. And yet if you were to make a Letterman-esque top 10 of the craziest things in “Collateral Beauty,” this entirely made-up nonsense term would only score an honorable mention. (For the record, it’s like “collateral damage,” except instead of damage you get beauty. Or something.)
“Collateral Beauty” is one of those films where simply summarizing the plot doubles as a savage critique. Maybe that’s why the trailers mislead viewers into thinking it’s some “Christmas Carol” knock-off, while the posters (with the tagline “We are all connected”) make it sound like something completely different — like a Yuletide “Crash” or “Babel.” It’s neither. It’s closer to “The Game,” but told from the POV of the people fleecing Michael Douglas, and also way, way, way too complicated.
The prey this time is Howard Inlet (“Inlet” is symbolic, we’re presuming), a hot shot ad exec played by Will Smith. He’s charismatic and Will Smith-y — the kind of cool boss who drops curse words into bursts of self-help speak. Then his six-year-old daughter dies. When we catch back up with him two years later, he remains remote and intransigent — like Adam Sandler in the 9/11 dramedy “Reign Over Me,” but without the funky hair or yen for Mel Brooks movies.
So begins grief management, Hollywood-style. Or not even: It’s like a tripping acid casualty’s idea of therapy. In order to save their friend, Howard’s business partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena) hatch a foolproof scheme: They’ll hire actors to pose as what Howard dubs “the three abstractions.” Keira Knightley will play “love,” Jacob Latimore “time” and Helen Mirren a very hammy “death.” (“The three abstractions,” like “collateral beauty,” is another notion that didn’t exist before this movie was conceived.) The actors will each confront Howard and somehow make it look like only he can see them, despite doing it amongst the bustling streets of New York City in December.
Alas, the three colleagues/friends don't only have his peace of mind on theirs. Howard's inability to participate in company business is causing sales to shrink. So his colleagues/friends have a private eye (Ann Dowd!) surreptitiously film the actors' encounters. They'll simply digitally remove the interlopers — shouldn’t be complicated or expensive — and make it look like Howard’s too crazy to sit on the company’s board. But never mind their shady and underhanded ruse; they somehow think that while Howard's being gaslit, he's bound to achieve some kind of breakthrough — two birds killed with one weirdo stone.
We hope all that made sense. Honestly, even trying to sum up the plot makes us feel like we're on a film critic version of "Drunk History." Simply put, these are the ravings of a madman — or, as it were, of a writer, Allan Loeb, who's one of the few screenwriters who's collaborated with not only Adam Sandler and Kevin James but also Oliver Stone. That Loeb's script somehow attracted two Oscar winners, three Oscar nominees, plus the excellent Naomie Harris — as a flirty grief counselor with her eye on Howard — makes the entire film seem like a rich peyote fantasy. That's before the ending hits us with three separate twists bound to make us feel like we’ve finally lost it.
And who knows? Maybe we already have. Is this a real movie? Is this life?Maybe this feel-good dramedy — the battiest December release since “Seven Pounds,” also starring Will Smith — is really a collective dream, birthed by our shared trauma over a long and nasty and despairing election cycle. Maybe we’re all about to wake up to find that the Matrix exists, and what we assumed was reality simply short-circuited back in January, giving us President-Elect Donald Trump, Brexit, Pokemon Go and a film called “Collateral Beauty.” Perhaps if audiences make it a hit, the world will finally no longer make sense. Everything will break down and we’ll suddenly emerge into a new and verdant paradise, where David Bowie and Prince and Garry Shandling still live, Bernie Sanders is actually God and a film with a cast this absurdly talented doesn't make us feel like we're wearing tinfoil hats.
But we’re probably not dreaming. Indeed, the only sign that “Collateral Beauty” is definitely real is that Winslet’s unwed workaholic spends the movie eyeing sperm donor websites — because one thing Hollywood will never stop doing is feeding us the line that 40-something single women are never complete unless they start a family and poop out some kids.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge