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What's on Tap

Review Collateral Beauty: The holidays are sad

Posted December 15, 2016

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— Virtually all of my colleagues in the North Carolina Film Critics Association are reviewing Rogue One this week. Not me though. I wish I could say it was because of some moral stand or sage wisdom that comes from knowing that my words won’t affect what nerds and fanboys want to do.

That’s not the case though. The truth is that I missed my screening of Rogue One because I was at Dollywood. A fair trade off? Maybe not, but it was the decision I made and am forced to live with.

Instead, this week I saw the latest entry in Will Smith’s “Would someone please give me an Oscar?” phase. It’s called Collateral Beauty but could more aptly be called “The Holidays are Sad” or “It Sucks When Kids Die.”

Collateral Beauty aims to be a modern take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but plays more like Hallmark Channel grief porn.

Smith plays Howard, a domino-fanatic (a weird character trait that’s only revealed to include cool domino tricks) and advertising executive, caught in an unforgiving state of depression after the death of his daughter. His partners Whit (Ed Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) are distraught. They are trying to push a deal through that will sell the firm but allow the staff to keep their jobs. The problem is Howard has been unable to discuss business for the better part of two years.

Whit hires a private investigator to get the ball rolling on a claim that Howard is mentally unfit to make decisions for the business. This PI somehow has a key to the specific mailbox outside Howard’s apartment building. After watching him drop three letters in the box, the PI opens it and is presumably able to immediately identify Howard’s handwriting.

It turns out that Howard is writing ideas and emotions, not people. His letters are to Time, Love and Death.

Whit, who is human garbage, decides to hire a three person theater company to play each of these characters in hopes of convincing Howard that he is either crazy or in need of human connection. Death is Helen Mirren. Love is Keira Knightly (pretty much playing a mashup of every Keira Knightly character). Time is a relative unknown named Jacob Lattimore.

By now you’re looking at this cast and wondering what the hell is going on. Let me do the math for you. Between everyone I have named there are 18 Oscar nominations and two wins. Why are so many talented people in such a dumpster fire of a movie? I wish I had the answer. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) has an Oscar too, but that was from his short film career. Nowadays he’s mostly responsible for stuff like this and Marley and Me. His involvement is understandable. Maybe even expected.

So these three actors start confronting Howard in various situations and locations. Howard believes they are hallucinations brought on by intense grief and sleepless nights. He claims at one point to be only sleeping six hours a week and assumes this is what the hallucinations are stemming from.

He sleeps more than six hours a week. My wife is a doctor. I asked her about this. She confirmed that that little sleep over a two year period would kill you. Howard is a liar. You should stop feeling bad for him.

So you get where we’re headed. What we have here is a very odd take on A Christmas Carol. The three actors are merely substitutes for the ghosts. Love is the Ghost of Christmas Past (Howard claims he is leaving love behind. Ebenezer Scrooge’s past was about a lover he scorned in favor of fortune). Time is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Howard is most angry at time for not healing his wounds. Ebenezer Scrooge learns that there is still time to change his fate). Death is the Ghost of Christmas Future (Howard is at this point merely waiting for his own death. Ebenezer Scrooge’s vision of the future is his funeral).

Is it profound? Maybe. It is certainly a more ambitious take on the material than say Jiminy Cricket, Willie the Giant and Pete coming to visit Scrooge McDuck.

But, alas, Collateral Beauty is largely forgettable. It’s another document of depression at the holidays, only it’s not as funny as Scrooged, nor is it as original as Die Hard. It’s a paint-by-numbers cash grab.

Dead kid? Check!

Friend doing the right thing for the wrong reason? Check!

Possibly supernatural intervention? Check!

Colorful decorations contrasted with the darkness that has overtaken our hero? Check!

The people sitting in the theater with me may have thought Collateral Beauty tugged at my heartstrings more than it did. I am battling a hell of a cold and spent the majority of the film sniffling. At least one man sitting in front of me turned around to make sure I was okay.

Hollywood, I have a request. Can you just give Will Smith an Oscar? This happens every holiday season. A movie comes out and Smith is clearly going for the hearts and minds of critics and voters. It started out fine. He played actual characters like Muhammad Ali. Now he’s just playing emotions (unconditional love in Pursuit of Happiness, regret in Seven Pounds and now depression here) or accents (Concussion starring Will Smith as West African!). Smith is a perfectly fine actor. He is likable and full of charisma. No one would blame you if you tossed him an Oscar in a year like 2016 when no one was good in anything.

Collateral Beauty is rife with problems both in continuity and execution. I think we can all rest comfortably knowing that Rogue One is coming out this week and no one will ever see this garbage until it ends up on Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas lineup.


Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.

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