Collateral Beauty review: a Chernobyl of toxic sentimentality

Will Smith stars in this horrifyingly cutesy Will Smith film in which bereavement is offset by soft-focus platitudes about wonder and compassion

There is a certain type of movie poster showing an array of actor faces – including that of Will Smith – in various sizes looking in various directions with soft-focus expressions of smiley wisdom that should trigger an alarm bell louder than Motörhead. It promises you that you are soon supposed to be laughing through your tears as you empathise with empathisable characters as they learn to love themselves and forgive themselves. And you? You are supposed to love and forgive Will Smith.

This horrifyingly yucky, toxically cutesy ensemble dramedy creates a Chernobyl atmosphere of manipulative sentimentality, topped off with an ending which M Night Shyamalan might reject as too ridiculous. This isn’t Frank Capra. It is emotional literacy porn, like an aspirational self-help bestseller written by Keyser Söze. At the end of it, I screamed the way polar bears are supposed to when they get their tongues frozen to the ice.

Will Smith plays a super-brilliant ad exec with a Ted-talking visionary schtick about connectivity. But when he tragically loses his six-year-old to cancer, poor Will becomes a mumbling semi-crazy hermit who is in danger of running his company into the ground. He starts writing letters to abstract concepts like Death, Love and Time, to rail at them. So his sorrowing colleagues – Ed Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña – cook up a sneaky plan. They intercept the letters and hire three actors, played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore, to go up to Will in the street and argue with him, pretending to be Death, Love and Time. (They could also have hired Jack Black to be Eat and Morgan Freeman to be Pray – but I guess there were copyright issues.)

Ed, Kate and Michael will secretly video his arguments with these imposters, digitally remove the actors from the video to make him look like a crazy person talking to himself, then show the video to the board to get Will voted off.

Collateral Beauty: trailer for the Will Smith movie with Kate Winslet – video

But wouldn’t you just know it? Each of these three duplicitous types have issues themselves. Norton is worried that his daughter from his failed marriage won’t love him; Winslet yearns for a baby and fears she’s running out of time and Peña has cancer – naturally, of the picturesque Hollywood sort which doesn’t involve looking unattractive in any way. Meanwhile, angry, lonely, anguished Will has discovered a therapy group run by Naomie Harris which might cause his wounds to heal. So it looks like the operations of divine quirkiness will do their mysterious work.

Even if we set aside the obvious cruelty and illegality of what our adorable three amigos and their three employees are up to, there is the question of the awful hamminess of everything. It is a special kind of awful when Helen Mirren goes into Waspish Fearless Bohemian mode as the imperious, cantankerous thespian who turns out to have an inner core of worldly knowledge.

Naomie Harris herself recalls, at the depths of her despair as someone who has herself lost a child, that someone told her that in such moments there is something called “collateral beauty”, like collateral damage only positive. Moments of loss are offset by revelations of human wonder at the resulting gestures of compassion and kindness. At least … I think that is how “collateral beauty” is supposed to work because no-one in this movie spells it out – perhaps because doing so would reveal the concept to be dishonest nonsense. But there we are.

Collateral Beauty continues on its silly, fatuous way and wraps up bereavement with a few fantasy platitudes. One to avoid.

  • Collateral Beauty opens in the US on 16 December and in the UK on 26 December


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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