When a successful New York advertising executive suffers a great tragedy, he retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it's not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.
It's almost painful to see a well-intentioned, heartfelt film go so very wrong. Whether it's a failure for the film to fully realize its central concept, or some failure to connect with an audience, a flop can hurt to watch. Especially when said film is Collateral Beauty and sports an incredible cast featuring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Michael Peña, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, and the always amazing Helen Mirren. As a pseudo-retelling of It's A Wonderful Life, this holiday special tries to grab the audience with heightened emotional turmoil but forgets to properly build relatable characters.
Businessman and entrepreneur extraordinaire Howard Inlet (Will Smith) lives by the three constant life abstractions of Love, Time, and Death. His respect for these abstractions made him an all around great friend and boss to his partners Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña). With their advertising firm at its zenith, everything looks to just be getting better and better until Howard's daughter dies. After three years, the man has hardly spoken to anyone and the business is starting to fall apart. Desperate to reach their best friend, Whit, Claire, and Simon discover Howard wrote his three life abstractions angry letters. With nowhere else to go, they hire three aspiring actors Bridgitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley), and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to impersonate Death, Love, and Time in order to bring their dear friend back to humanity and show him life is actually worth living.
Collateral Beauty means well; it is earnestly trying to tell a fairy tale about life's ups and downs and obstacles, and how, through close friendships and love, people can overcome. The promotional materials in the run-up to its theatrical release promised audiences some sort of emotionally cathartic, tear-filled affirmation about the never-ending possibilities of life. Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit of a bait and switch. If you've only seen the trailers, then my summation above may sound a bit puzzling since those previews sold the movie on the idea that an emotional Will Smith will actually be met by the physical embodiment of Love, Death, and Time. And he is… sort of.
I loathe spoilers. Can't stand them. Anytime someone tries to give away a twist to a plot or extra details I don't want to know, I have to suppress the urge to hit them. It's why I disavow all of my friends who are Game of Thrones fans as I'm always 2-3 episodes behind. To that point, I will simply say the twists and turns this flick takes are on the nose to the point of being insulting to everything you just saw mere moments ago. The ending is especially troublesome and feels cheap. But that would actually only be upsetting if the rest of the movie worked - which it doesn't.
As director David Frankel and screenwriter Allan Loeb attempt to weave a tapestry of emotional connections around Will Smith's Howard, they forget to actually make Howard a true person. We meet Howard giving an inspirational speech to his employees before instantly jumping three years in time as the man builds elaborate domino tracks before knocking them over. We never get to know Howard. We never meet his daughter or his wife. He's just happy, then sad. There's no emotional connection to the man beyond the inherent tragedy of losing a child, which this film frequently exploits like a gimmick. We get plenty of time to know Winslet's Claire and her need for a child, Norton's Whit and his longing for love after cheating on his wife, and Peña's Simon as he deals with a life-threatening illness. These characters are strengthened as they meet and connect with Latimore's Raffi, Knightley's Amy, and Mirren's Bridgitte. There is a whole other plot contrivance with Howard and his grief counselor Madeline, played by Naomie Harris, that means well, but is thrown under the bus with a final revelation that feels disingenuous.
While this impressive cast is giving it their all, really gunning it for those Oscar nominations, everything else falls flat. Smith gives one of his best performances in a long, long time. Unfortunately, we don't get to know and love Howard in order to feel his pain beyond "because we should." Collateral Beauty is too busy looking too sterile and too perfect to draw genuine humans as leading characters. The emotions are real, but the people they're coming from don't feel relatable. If you want to see some terrific acting, Collateral Beauty delivers. However, if you're looking for some sort of emotional affirmation about life's eccentricities, I'm afraid you may feel hollow by the thin story and trite plot twists.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Collateral Beauty arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case. The disc loads to the trailer for the upcoming Wonder Woman film and an ad for 4k UHD before arriving at a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. Also included is a Digital HD voucher slip.
While the film's story may struggle to resonate, the 2.40:1 1080p transfer provided for Collateral Beauty is an absolute stunner. Shot digitally, this transfer is a showcase of how great a film can look on the medium. Detail levels are striking and never falter as you can see and appreciate everything from the characters to the production design, and all of the New York City locations. Colors are rich and vivid allowing the primaries to leap off the screen - especially blues - without impacting natural flesh tones. Black levels are the deep inky sort you look for with plenty of shadow separation giving the image that nice three-dimensional effect you want to see. Free of any compression artifacts or video noise, this is a flawless transfer.
Collateral Beauty also enjoys a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix that provides a nicely immersive quality. A number of scenes take place in hurried office quarters or on the bustling streets of New York and the imaging is terrific. The prominent characters and their dialogue exchanges aren't trampled on by the surrounding scuttle of effects giving an appreciable sense of atmosphere and space. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any issues. The score by Theodore Shapiro works into the mix beautifully. Levels are spot on without any need of monitoring once you've got your volume set comfortably. Like the video, there is nothing to complain about here.
Given this film's critical drubbing and complete theatrical abandonment, it's no real surprise that bonus features are decidedly lacking for this release of Collateral Beauty.
A Modern Fable: Discovering Collateral Beauty: (HD 15:03) This is an odd sort of an EPK-style bonus feature with the main cast and crew talking up the film like it is an extremely important human drama. After watching the main event, this side piece is actually kind of funny and sad because you can tell they truly believe they're making a work of art.
Emotions are tricky things, requiring finesse in order to resonate properly. Unfortunately, Collateral Beauty uses emotions like blunt instruments. We never really connect with the characters in an honest way so it becomes increasingly difficult to feel for them - especially when some ill-conceived plot twists come into play and cheapen the whole affair.
Collateral Beauty arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. looking absolutely drop dead gorgeous with an audio mix to match. Extra features are about as barebones as they can get. If you must see this film, it's a rental. A blind buy is not encouraged.