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Oscar-winning director David Frankel (Dear Diary) directs an all-star ensemble cast in a drama that features Will Smith, Edward Norton and Keira Knightley.... More
When successful New York advertising executive Howard Inlet (Smith) is sent on a downward spiral after experiencing a personal tragedy, his colleagues devise a plan to force him to confront his grief in a surprising and profoundly human way.Hide
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BY cinemusefilm superstar
Some of the problem starts with the label on the product. When we buy a ticket to a contemporary ‘drama romance’ our senses are tuned for the usual genre tropes and conventions that help us interpret a film. If Collateral Beauty was labelled ‘magical realism’ the outcome might have been worse despite the more accurate label. This genre offers an essentially realistic view of life but it incorporates elements of magic, fantasy or the supernatural. Unprepared, viewers can misread the cues and thus mis-read the film. Put simply, Collateral Beauty is an essay on grief psychosis that is made bearable by framing its premise around magical realism.
At a superficial level, the plot is straightforward. Howard (Will Smith) used to be a charismatic leader of a very successful advertising agency until, two years ago, he lost his six-year old daughter. He cannot come to terms with her death, his marriage is shattered and the agency is in trouble, while he cannot even speak the words “my daughter Olivia died of cancer”. Seeking catharsis, he writes letters to three abstract entities, Death, Time, and Love. But his letters are intercepted by a private investigator hired by his colleagues who want to either shake him out of his depressive stupor or have him certified unfit to run the company. Three actors representing Death, Time, and Love are hired to confront Howard and goad him to externalise his suppressed grief. They convince him that nobody else can see them although each encounter is secretly filmed as evidence. Each of his three colleagues have personal dramas in their own lives, as do each of the three actors hired to confront him, and of course his therapist has problems of her own. In terms of narrative structure, films do not get more complicated than this.
If the structure is not sufficiently perplexing, there are frequent non-signposted transitions between layers of reality that leave viewers uncertain that what they are seeing is actually happening rather than a figment of a disturbed mind. Despite excellent acting from a stellar cast and a brisk pace of storytelling, this film presents insurmountable challenges for viewers wanting easy entertainment. However, what has been described by most critics as a total mess of a film is, for this reviewer, a lyrical fable of mixed realities that reflect the turmoil inside Howard’s head. When he first utters those words he could not speak, it is gut-wrenching.
If this film was re-imagined with the cast in 17th Century costumes and Howard as the innkeeper of the best establishment in the land, with the three actors, Death, Time, and Love played as ephemerals that materialised and then disappeared, it would be described as a universal tale of Shakespearean proportions. But instead, it is a highly original story in an age where originality is hard to find. It is also a complex, challenging, and deeply thought-provoking story capable of reaching deep inside your soul, if only you let it.Hide
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