Film: “Collateral Beauty”; Director: David Frankel; Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Michael Pena; Rating: ****
“Collateral Beauty” has been dealt with by critics the world over with undeserved savagery. It has its deep flaws, yes. And the core premise of a satirical personification of Time, Death and Love, is hard to swallow.
But there is so much that is achingly beautiful in the film. New York is shot by Maryse Alberti, in the night light when the city seems most vibrant and during that time of the day when loneliness is most pronounced.
At its heart, this is a film that tells you to embrace death. It is a deeply melancholic meditation on bereavement and morality. There are characters who are either mourning the loss of a dead one or preparing themselves for inevitable death in their lives.
At one point in the storytelling, a dying middle-aged man tells an unlikely confidante that he never wanted to become an old shriveled-up prune. Now when he won’t live to be that, he wants nothing more. Our hurting hero Howard, on the the other hand, wants nothing more than death.
Will Smith’s portrayal of a man who has shut all systems down after bereavement is so scarily throbbing with rage and resentment that we tend to mistake his exterior quietude for something far less acrimonious than it actually is. This is a man who doesn’t give a damn anymore about his dreams, friends, social conduct, food or sex. Or, anything that normal people consider to be Anourishing and nurturing.
Will Smith hardly speaks. His Howard is a ticking time-bomb. When he finally explodes, I heard sobs somewhere close to me. Turned out it was me.
“Collateral Beauty” is an impossibly ambitious look back in suppressed anger at the injustices of life that are shoveled on to the most undeserving victims of karmic brutality. It could be Howard whose loss is irreparable. Or his colleague Simon Scott (Michael Pena) who is hiding his impending death from his family. Or the feisty actress Bridgette who plays Death even as death plays her.
Every character in this gentle elegiac ode to mortality is unhappy, even the little girl (played with sobering brilliance by Kylie Rogers) who hates her father (Ed Norton) for divorcing her mother. And yet for its disgruntled characters, “Collateral Beauty” is not an unhappy film. It leaves us with a lingering affection for life’s gifts big and small, and thankful for the presence of your loved ones.
The film is shot with a dose of slackened adrenaline. It makes the pulses race and hearts soar but it doesn’t exhilarate the senses in the way great cinema is meant to be. This is Frank Capra’s cinema where some of the wonderful life is lost in translation. And yet what remains is so precious and powerful that the losses in the narrative construction become bearable.
Finally what fuels the false feeling of failed film is the exceedingly streamlined structuring of the characterization. Every character is complemented by a counter-point character making the goings-on look much too planned and precise to convey the full heft of the intended emotional impact.
When three struggling actors are introduced in the plot as personifications of ‘Love,’ ‘Time’ and ‘Death’, each one befriends three principal characters close to the core of the drama. This is where the problems arise. Critics have laughed at what they see as a bogus premise for a spiritual sparring session on death and guilt. They are repulsed, some to the point of nausea by the film’s arching homage to the spirit of mortal combat between happiness and yearning.
But the film saves up one final twist for the last, a twist that I never saw coming. And when it came, I was so thankful for it, and so grateful that life in the movies can still be swerved into a state of sublime redemption that I forgave all the all-too-obvious discrepancies in the plot.
The performances range from the terrifyingly tactile (Will Smith, Michael Pena), to the deliciously theatrical (Helen Mirrem, Keira Knightley). Kate Winslet, poor woman, has the most sketchily written part. She wolves on her meager part with the hunger of a dying soul grabbing on to the last shred of life.
That, my friend, is what “Collateral Beauty” means. See the film with a loved one. You will come out of the theatre clutching his or her hand for your dear life.
By Subhash K. Jha