Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Collateral Beauty (2017) - Movie Review

Every couple of years, Will Smith looks at an empty place on his mantle and decides that he wants to fill that space with an Oscar. With that in mind, he goes into full-blown Oscar bait mode and stars in a vehicle meant to give him that acclaim. Unfortunately, up until this point, it hasn’t worked out for him yet. He’s gotten a couple of nominations for Best Actor, most recently in 2006 with The Pursuit Of Happiness, but he has yet to win one. Given the whole media furore over Leonardo DiCaprio’s similar position until his inevitable win for The Revenant, I don’t hold much stock in this need for this particular brand of validation, but nevertheless, he ends up bringing this side of himself to the screen every so often… with very little success, even ignoring the obvious intent behind it all.

I personally have a liking for some of his works in this style, like Seven Pounds and even last year’s Concussion, but there’s a very deliberate and manipulative air to most of them that ultimately make them fall short of their lofty ambitions. Then again, this is something that befalls an awful lot of Oscar hopefuls: They spend so much time trying to tap into some form of emotional complexity that the Academy loves so much, but they don’t spend enough taking a step back and realizing how those emotions are being presented to us and how insensitive it can get. And oh boy, nothing in recent memory embodies the term “insensitive” quite like today’s film.

The plot: Howard (Will Smith), a monetarily successful advertising executive, is stuck in a deep bout of depression as a result of the tragic death of his daughter. As a means of personal therapy, he writes letters to the forces of Death, Time and Love to outlet on how they have wronged him. However, things take a turn for the weird when Death (Helen Mirren), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Love (Keira Knightley) each show themselves to Howard in response to his letters. As Howard starts talking, both to the entities and to his close friends, about his pain, he begins his road to recovery. Or, at least, that’s what the trailer would have us believe.

One of the bigger signifiers of a Will Smith Oscar hopeful is his style of performance. The man has always been a font of charisma (when he isn’t glorifying his own children on screen) but in films like this, he basically embodies what everyone thinks of when they think of Oscar-worthy acting… and rightly so, in my opinion. For as troubled as this production is, Smith is easily the best part of it as he gives some genuine emotion to his performance, selling the trauma and pain right alongside the anger and eventual acceptance of his circumstances. He is also bolstered by a high-profile cast, whom are likewise in ACTING! mode. Some of the performances are good (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña as Howard’s closest friends), some are awkward (Mirren and Latimore) and some are good because they seem to echo Will Smith in how they react to the events around them (Keira Knightley); namely, that even they are aghast at what is going on in this story.

Right off the bat, there are two major warning signs that this film isn’t going to turn out so well. The first, as many have already commented on, is the trailer, which paints a more fantastical impression of the story than we ultimately end up getting. The second is the main character’s profession as an ad exec. This is usually the go-to occupation for films that barely hide their own mass marketing, along with giving the production itself a freebie to include as much product placement as they can muster. Now, while that last instance isn’t necessarily the case, this still feels like a film that is all about trying to get the audience to buy its bullshit. As you can probably tell by my wording, it doesn’t do so well.

This is what Oscar bait probably sounds like to people who hate Oscar bait, full of sickeningly vapid and mealy-mouthed platitudes about death, time and love that the actors are desperately trying to work through but you can tell from the writing that no amount of conviction can save these lines. It actually got to a point where “Death” talks about two babies in a womb wondering if there’s anything beyond where they are, and it felt like a gasket went off in my brain from how much it pissed me off. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I made a rather lengthy Facebook post about this very story and how I cannot stand what it represents, but then again, the way it’s presented is as trite as you can get without just out-and-out quoting scripture.

The thing that hurts most about this is that it didn’t even need to be this trite as there are small buds of light that could have made this far better if the filmmakers put proper focus on it. Outside of how the abstractions interact with Howard, there’s also how they interact with the workers that got their attention and, for as wonky as it gets, it has a couple of nice moments to it. “Time” helping Claire come to terms with her prospects of starting a family, “Death” consoling Simon about his health issues and “Love” aiding Whit in sorting out his relationship with his daughter; this is honestly pretty good stuff… or, at least, it would be if there was more concrete put into their wording and their respective exchanges didn’t last for only a few moments at a time.

There’s also something weirdly meta about how Howard handles the situation as it seems like he’s buying it as much as the audience is. In every scene where he confronts the abstractions, he’s either remarking on the surreality of the situation or just calling them out on their purple prose; you know you’re dealing with schlock when even Will Smith is getting tired of it. The fact that one of these outbursts quickly follows the aforementioned womb analogy makes me think that this could have turned out a lot better if it took a proper step back and realised the utter starry-eyed nonsense it was forcing these people to say.

Now it’s time to get into the big, big problem with this film, something that manages to overshadow the trash heap that it’s stuck in. It’s also time to properly get into what this film is actually about: Rather than this film actually featuring the manifestations of Death, Time and Love, Howard’s co-workers hired three actors to play those parts in order to get Howard fired on grounds of being not mentally sound. Basically, they try pushing him to lash out at the abstractions in public, have him secretly filmed and then have it edited so it looks like he’s shouting at thin air, making him look unfit for work. They try to pass it off as them helping him come to grips with his own grief, but unlike this film, I’m not about to sugar-coat reality and I am certainly not going to justify their fundamentally broken ethics. When it comes to helping a person in any form of mental anguish, be it dependency, grief, effects of mental illness or even all of the above, the key point to keep in mind is that the person involved must want the help; until they reach that point, nothing can really be done.

I bring this up because, of the many things that can be done to help make that process run better, out-and-out deception and making the person think that they are sicker than they actually are is not the way to do it. Hell, the film itself seems to realise this with one of the most spectacular ass-pulls of an ending I’ve seen in a long while, trying to placate those in the audience who felt lied to by the marketing. Ultimately, this film is all about the ends justifying the means, even if those means include some truly terrible and stupid acts. I get the concept of a pleasing lie being used to cover up a painful truth, but when it’s this transparent and this heinous on a pretty fundamental level, I am in no way willing to excuse this.

All in all, this is the biggest load of horseshit I’ve had to sit through in a very long time, even considering the depths that Oscar bait can sink to. While I give credit to the actors for doing their damnedest to make the dialogue and overall story palatable, and it does end up making this slightly better than it would have been otherwise, make no mistake that this is still atrocious in pretty much every facet. The emotional connections feel forced and manipulated, the ethics are among the ugliest I’ve seen since I started doing these reviews, and the way that this film tries to justify its own callousness is frankly sickening. This sets a pretty low bar for this year’s releases in terms of what could be considered a ‘bad’ movie, and I dread the day that a film comes out within the next 12 months that is worse.

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