Collateral Beauty had amazing potential. On paper, this film seemed destined to rank alongside the likes of Seven Pounds. Both films star Will Smith and you get the impression that director David Frankel was aiming to deliver something similar in terms of content and tone. While Will Smith certainly echoes this sentiment, he's not alone, playing a hollow lead to an ensemble of Hollywood heavyweights, including: Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris and Helen Mirren. "Hollow", because he's playing a husk of a man ravaged by grief and because most of the talking is done by the supporting cast.
Frankel directed The Devil Wears Prada, which probably makes him more adept at dealing with sleek, high-flying office dramas. Collateral Beauty tells the story of a visionary advertising agency director who retreats within himself after a tragedy and starts writing letters to Love, Time and Death as a catharsis. This is only the beginning as the drama revolves around his partners and their feigned "concern" for him and the well-being of the company. Resorting to a ridiculous scheme in an attempt to seize a controlling interest of the company over Christmas, they are forced to confront their own projections.
Collateral Beauty just goes to show that if your script is fundamentally flawed, even the best of intentions and an all-star cast can't save your film from nosediving. While we're introduced to Will Smith's character, we never assimilate a full picture of what the man was like before the tragedy, leaving him something of a mystery. While his domino-building art and reclusive status certainly keep him interesting amid antisocial grunts and distant gazes, we never get a chance to latch onto the subject of all this "collateral beauty". Alienated from the lead, our only point of entry is through his conniving associates, whose ulterior motives make them cold and unlikeable.
"Well, who did you expect... Oprah?"
The Christmas miracle theme help soften the line between reality and fantasy, however if anything Collateral Beauty needed to be more geared towards magic realism. Frankel never really gets the balance right, tending towards chocolate box sentimentalism and melodrama, when the film needed to go 21 Grams serious or August Rush elemental. Instead of picking a side, we navigate the grey area like a cheesy holiday movie ensemble piece, believing the best based on the esteem and quality of the actors.
It all seems rather misguided, turning what should have been a high concept dark comedy into an airy fairy tearjerker. Apart from a few heartstring plucks, almost every moment rings false... moving forth with pomp like the naked Emperor, contrived and preposterous. Stumbling onto and intercepting his letters, conveniently cottoning on to an over-the-top gameplay and never truly testing the thinly veiled scheme, we're forced to simply accept everything blindly. It's as if David Frankel has tried to stuff a Gary Marshall holiday movie into Seven Pounds Christmas stocking without you noticing.
It's difficult to come to terms with just how flawed a movie starring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Naomie Harris could possibly be. Collateral Beauty's not aggressively bad, just fatally flawed, forcing us to lean on the charm of the dedicated ensemble and the heartwarming intentions of the filmmakers, as unintentionally funny and ludicrous as it gets. Collateral Beauty is a bit late for Christmas, but will undoubtedly flummox everyone who gets a whiff of the wealth of acting talent.