Death is always a tricky subject to cover in films, the right balance needs to be struck in order to properly convey the complex emotions associated with an inevitability, that no one person has a formula for dealing with. A film can have subtlety, and use the characters actions and emotions to convey to the audience what they are thinking and feeling, about a lost loved one in a fictional setting. A film can also go the other way, and hammer home the point that death is sad, and you should feel sad because it is death, and ultimately wind up being cheesy, or overly dramatic. Collateral Beauty comes dangerously close to being the latter, as it makes a great many choices in disservice to the story it seems to be trying to tell. What saves the movie from being an overindulgent mess is the cast, who all give good, but not great performances.
The story of Collateral Beauty is focused on Howard, played by Will Smith, who is two years removed from the death of his young daughter. Stricken with grief, he retreats into his own mind, never speaking, never working, just showing up to the office and setting up dominoes. To cope he writes three letters, one to each of the three concepts that Howard has stated life is predicated on, love, time, and death. Because of this, his company is suffering, his colleagues, played by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Peña, can’t seem to shake him out of his rut, and are forced into a scenario of selling the company. The idea of saving Howard, and bringing him back to the person he is in the opening flashback should be a noble pursuit, but what the group does however borders on torture, as they hire actors to portray the three abstract concepts; played by Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, and Helen Mirren. The way the film unfolds from this concept is very hit and miss, there are moments that work, where each of the main character’s stories are told in was convincing way, and others that feel out of place within the narrative being constructed. Where the film falters is that while Howard is dealing with all three of these pillars of life, it is clear that each of supporting characters, is specifically paired up with one of the abstract ideas, so their story is all about that one thing, and their characterization suffers for it. The story falls victim at nearly every turn from telling the audience what is going on, instead of showing them, it is what holds back the film from being much better, because you can see the end of each character arc, because you were told what each was supposed to learn. This causes The story of all of the characters is also a tad too predictable, which lessens the impact of the events in the last moments. There really is a better film to be had within this story, and with these characters, but the film really could have used the show and not tell approach to storytelling. There are too many times where the film flat out explains things that do not need explaining, mostly because the characters do a good job of expressing, their thoughts and emotions. This really shows towards the end as well as the film becomes a little too heavy-handed; when Smith gives his big speech to each of the concepts, where he states how he feels about each one, something that we shouldn’t have needed to be told, and take some of the impact from these scenes.
All of this is not to say that the movie is all bad, there is some genuine emotion, and the cast does a good job with what they had to work with. Will Smith is the standout, as the film is really all about him. The majority of the movie he is closed off, and silent, but he does some of his best work in the film, showcasing the character’s emotion, just by his facial expressions. His ability to express without dialogue is the showcase of what could have been for the film, as the story does not need to state how he is feeling as he deals with loss, because the audience can see it on his face, which is much more powerful to watch. The rest of the cast is good, but not great. Norton, Winslet, and Peña all have their one thing that they are dealing with, and for the most part they all work, though Peña’s arc is the best of the three. Norton also does a good job of lightening the mood with humor, which gives a nice break to the many more dramatic scenes. Mirren, Knightley, and Latimore all do a fine job acting out their respective concepts, and actually discusses some interesting takes on all three; which makes their scenes with Howard responding to his letters enjoyable to watch. Naomie Harris also does a good job playing the leader of a support group, which Howard reluctantly participates in, though the subplot feels tacked on, and is not fleshed out enough.
The idea of this film is really much better than its execution, and it is a shame that the audience does not get to see a better end result. Collateral Beauty is a film that many will enjoy, as the acting is good enough to overcome some of the problems, but unfortunately not all of them, as once you move past the emotional connection to the performances, and the more you think about the events of the film, the more the cracks start to show. The star-studded ensemble brings out the best in this film, but in the end it winds up being just ok, as dialogue and story choices hold it back from being something that could have been great.