Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Collateral Beauty (2016)

rating: ****

the story: A man struggling with the death of his child comes across unlikely support.

what it's all about: In recent years it's become fashionable to put the cart before the horse, when talking about movies.  It seems to matter less what a movie actually accomplishes and more a very thin impression of maybe one element (if you're lucky) that becomes distorted in order to form a basis of rejection.  Collateral Beauty became an egregious example of this. 

For the first decade of the 21st century, Will Smith was virtually untouchable.  He made smash hit after smash hit, and critics felt comfortable elevating him from movie star to respected actor.  Awards chatter followed him when he chose a role that fit the criteria (Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness).  Eventually, though, the streak ended, more or less when he released Seven Pounds in 2008.  In a lot of ways, Collateral Beauty is a sequel to Seven Pounds.  They both feature Smith as a troubled individual struggling to reconcile himself to a horrible new truth in his life.  Actually, even a lot of his blockbuster movies feature him in this mode, notably I, Robot.  What Seven Pounds did was scrub away entirely his crowd-pleasing image, so that only the actor remained, and the role and the story around him becomes an outright tragedy.  Known for a fairly comedic approach otherwise, this might be considered Smith doing what most comedy actors do, seek out dramatic work now and then, which Robin Williams in particular accomplished to great success.  But where Williams waited years to go dark, and met with similar results, Smith attempted it at the height of his success, and plunged right into it.  So to see him return to that mode, after a near decade of struggles, is to see that it truly is his choice and not a creative gamble. 

After an opening scene that casts Smith in a similar vein to George Clooney in Up in the Air, he virtually retreats into the background, so that for most of the movie, it's not really Smith's movie at all, but the wonderful supporting ensemble's around him.  But watching him interact with them, and seeing his relationship with Naomie Harris in particular develop, is to see how all the pieces fit together.  The scenes and the arc with Harris in particular evoke Seven Pounds, a movie that builds in its impact until it hits an emotional crescendo, in a way that few movies I've seen have been capable of delivering (Warrior is another, and a true master class in that art).

Now, that supporting cast is involved in an elaborate plot of several layers.  Detractors mostly fixated on two of its three essential layers, the ones present in the trailers that became soundly misunderstood.  What detractors above all these days love to do is declare something creepy.  They did it with that year's Passengers, too, complaining about a plot point that was in fact the entire plot of the movie, that the plot meant to resolve.  Smith's business partners, portrayed by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Pena conspire to demonstrate that he's been permanently compromised by the death of his daughter.  They hire an investigator to find dirt on him, and discover that he writes letters to Love, Death, and Time.  In the original trailer, it seems actual personifications of these concepts visit him of their own accord.  Then it was discovered that Norton, Winslet, and Pena hire actors to play them.  It seemed like gaslighting.  Like Passengers, this is directly addressed in the movie.  But the real twist, which is presented so that the characters Smith, Norton, Winslet, and Pena play never find out, is that the actors really are Love, Death, and Time.  This essentially makes a complete mockery of that criticism, and exposes it for never having bothered to see the movie.

And it's to the loss of those detractors, because the result are extremely edifying.  Few movies, few observers in general, are interested in looking at humanity as a whole these days.  They pick elements here and there and offer defensive looks.  A movie like Collateral Beauty is designed to shatter these defenses.  That may be its greatest accomplishment, or would be if more people were aware of what it actually accomplishes.

Anyway, the storytelling is one thing, but the incredible assemblage of actors is another.  Norton's career stalled when his reputation as being troublesome on set overshadowed his talent.  In recent years he's had supporting roles that have allowed him to once again assert that talent.  In Collateral Beauty he seems to get a chance to be the troublemaker he's perceived to be, and to have a redemptive arc, too.  Out of Smith's three business partners he has the biggest role.  Winslet and Pena's arcs are more subtle, but equally essential.  The three actors, meanwhile, are arguably the best reason to watch the movie.  Keira Knightley is another actor who's struggled in recent years to sustain a once-popular career, and seems to have found a role that commentates on perception.  Jacob Latimore is the only unknown actor in the ensemble, but is a true revelation.  But the real discovery here is Helen Mirren, who finally has a role that pierces her armor, even in a career that has taken every opportunity, likely and otherwise.  Which is to say, she finally lets loose and just has fun.

This is a must-see movie for a lot of reasons.  Hopefully I've helped clarify that.

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