A couple of months ago a friend sent a link to me. It was the trailer for Collateral Beauty. The trailer is beautifully done. In the trailer we learn that Will Smith has lost a daughter at a young age, has given up on life and has raged at the cosmos for answers. We are led to believe that he gets answers from the three things he says connect all human beings. As he says “We long for love. We wish we had more time. And, we fear death.” What could be more profound? We know about the damage that death causes. The movie title is a play on “collateral damage”, a term we are all too familiar with. The movie promises we will find out about the “collateral beauty”, presumably of his daughter’s death. As a grieving parent, I could not wait to see the movie. I try to go to movies with low expectations. The higher my expectations, the more chance I will be disappointed. I also try to go knowing as little as possible about the movie. I won’t read reviews. After watching the one trailer, I even avoided all other trailers. The movie boasts an all-star cast. Not only Will Smith, who has turned into an excellent actor, we also have Helen Mirren, Kate Winslett, Edward Norton and Keira Knightley. When I was looking up movie times I stumbled across the reviews from Rotten Tomatoes (damn you Google) and saw the headlines of some blogs about the movie. It seemed there was a lot of disappointment around the movie and some of the plot twists. I’ll say up front, if you’re a grieving parent planning to see this movie looking for some answers, looking for how to see the transcendence in the world, looking for hope, just rewatch What Dreams May Come and skip this one.
Minor spoiler- one of the things the trailer leaves out is how Time, Love and Death come to call on Howard. That should have been in there. We are led to believe that they come in response to his letters. In actuality, we find out quickly in the movie that his business partners are concerned that the business is floundering because Howard has checked out from the business. He is the majority owner and he had all of the client relationships in the advertising agency they run. One by one, they are losing all of their clients because Howard does absolutely no work. He comes to work, spends days setting up elaborate domino towers only to knock them down and return home to his small apartment. He doesn’t speak to anyone. They can’t even talk to him about selling the business, because he won’t speak. So, they decide to hire a group of actors they find rehearsing a play in an abandoned theater. These three play the roles of Time, Love, and Death in order to make Howard act out so a private eye can catch him on film acting crazy and they can have him declared mentally incompetent. Yes. The plot of the movie is his founding partner and two people he has mentored plot to steal his business by having him declared mentally incompetent. At this point, we are questioning whether Time, Love and Death are actually who they say they are or if they are simply actors in need of funding for their play.
The movie does an excellent job of showing the collateral damage caused by the death of Olivia, Howard’s daughter. Howard is losing his business. Howard has no social life. Howard has no desire to eat. He sleeps 6-7 hours, a week. Howard has gotten divorced. The movie makes sure we know that 79% of couples who lose a child end up getting divorced. Howard is a wreck. His life is in shambles. (Note to Will Smith- you should have asked Christian Bale how to play a man in this state- see The Machinist. Had Howard spent the last two years riding that bike the way he did in the movie, not sleeping and not eating, he would have looked more like this).
Read no further if you intend to see the film. Here’s where the real spoilers begin.
OK. So, now we know that Howard’s life sucks. Enter Time, Love, and Death. Again, not with the motivation to make Howard realize the beauty in his life, with the motivation of getting him to sell his business so his friends can go on with their lives. Each, in turn, makes their pitch to Howard for why he should snap out of it. They give some decent speeches, but nothing that really moves Howard out of the funk he is in. Love tells Howard she is the fabric of the universe (Howard already know this. He says it right in the opening of the movie). Time tells Howard he is a gift. Yeah. Right. Time is a gift when you are living a life you enjoy. Time is a prison when you are living a life separated by what you hold most dear. Death- well I can’t even remember Death’s pitch other than she’s annoyed that Howard called her basically middle management with no authority to make decisions. Howard offered Death a trade. He would die if his daughter could live. Howard tells Time he doesn’t want his gift since Time took that gift from his daughter. Howard tells Love that she betrayed him. Howard destroys all of the platitudes religion and science give us to make us feel better about Death and Time stealing all we Love. And they have no satisfactory answers. IMO, Howard won every argument he had with those three.
What we realize though is the actors are each having an impact on the co-conspirators. Time is there for Kate Winslett’s character. She has poured her entire life into the firm and has delayed having a family of her own. Her biological clock is going off. Time gives her the Einstein “Time is a persistent illusion” speech. Death is there for the partner dying of cancer who has told no one. Death convinces him to tell his family he is dying. Love is there for Edward Norton who is estranged from his 10-year-old daughter. She refuses to have anything to do with him because he cheated on her mother and caused the end of the marriage. Each of the three is touched by the actors (who seem to have little influence on Howard). The guy who is dying tells his family. Kate Winslett gives up on having a baby (maybe she’s going to adopt). Edward Norton insists on a relationship with his daughter and makes some progress.
Howard is confronted in the Board Room with the results of their con. They have filmed him arguing with Time, Love and Death and they have edited the characters out of the films. (I’m no movie expert. But, there is reason why they use green screen when they want to remove characters from a scene or they have the actor wear green suits. I think the editing they did would have been nearly impossible without a studio, but I digress).
So, in the videos, it looks like Howard is arguing with people who aren’t there. Here is where I am thinking they are going to come clean. Or, Howard is going to have his eyes opened that he owes these people his presence and he’s going to promise to come back to the company. I’m thinking this is the big reveal. Howard is going to go back to being the old Howard for his friends and his firm. He’s going to realize they need him. But, no. Howard signs the papers, sells the company and they take the money they are going to get from the sale. They’ve all just gotten rich convincing him he’s crazy.
A subplot that develops is Howard starts going to a grief counseling group. There is an attractive woman leading the group. One night, after he finally goes in (after creeping outside of the window for several nights) they strike up a conversation. That’s where we learn he’s divorced and she’s divorced. They are part of the 79%. She shows him a card her ex-husband gave her that says something like “I wish we could be strangers again”. When people lose a child, sometimes the other person is a reminder of that child every single day and it’s too much to bear. People deal with grief differently. Apparently, Howard wouldn’t even say Olivia’s name. When asked in the group to say her name and how she died, he refuses. Others lean into their grief. If you get one person who wants to lean into it and another who does not, that is a combination that probably won’t work.
At the end of the movie, we find out this woman is actually Howard’s ex. WTF?! Apparently, they were both play acting the whole time. When he finally made his way to her group (two years after Olivia had passed). She pretended not to know him and he pretended not to know her so they could start all over again. This is the plot twist that I think upset some people. I still haven’t read any reviews, but I saw a headline “Here’s every single thing that’s wrong with Collateral Beauty”).
In the end, Howard and Olivia’s mother start all over. That’s great. The dying guy tells his family he’s dying. Apparently, he still dies. Kate Winslett decides to adopt. She admits Time has defeated her. And Time, who has said “Time is a persistent illusion” admits maybe that was just bullshit. Edward Norton does rekindle the relationship with his daughter. We learn that Helen Mirren was the woman sitting with Howard’s wife the day they turned off the machines and let Olivia go. I’m not sure where Howard was at that moment- maybe I missed it. It’s ambiguous whether Time, Love and Death were just actors or were Light Beings. We know that Keira Knightley (Love) intentionally led Edward Norton to the theater in the beginning and we know that Helen Mirren (Death) was there with Howard’s wife when Olivia passed telling her to look for the Collateral Beauty. The problem is, once the movie was over, I failed to find the Collateral Beauty myself.
p.s.- How would I have made it better?
Someone asked how would I have made the movie better? Great question.
First, in a movie where Time, Love, and Death can be personified, it’s not too much to ask to go into the transcendence of the human spirit. There was no mention of the afterlife. At one point, Time says “If Love is the creator of all things and Death is the destroyer of all things, I am what you experience in between. I am a gift.” or something like that. So, are we to assume that Death is the end? Death is only destruction? OTOH, Death makes the comment that, if you look at it correctly, nothing ever really dies. But, this is not expounded upon.
Also, I would have had the conspirators come clean. I thought that perhaps Howard was playing a role along with Time, Love and Death to teach them a lesson. I would have had them confess that they had set Howard up. Maybe, then Howard would have revealed the three were working with him to teach the conspirators a lesson. Howard could have announced that he had learned that he was needed by others in this world and it wasn’t his time to give up on life yet. He could have come back to the firm for the sake of his partners. He could have played a role in helping the one partner to find a peaceful death and helping out his family.
They could have developed each of the three conspirators’ characters more. Time needed to do more with Kate Winslett. Death needed to do more with the guy who was dying. Those story lines just kind of fizzled.
And, at the end, what was the deal with Will Smith not knowing his wife? Did he have selective amnesia? Did they agree to play these roles for each other in an effort to start over?
As a grieving father, I was excited to see that Time, Love, and Death had been personified. I was hoping for a transcendental message where Death is there to help us appreciate the Time we have, but Love transcends even Death. That would have made the movie complete for me.