Many critics have totally panned “Collateral Beauty” as being emotionally manipulative, unworthy of the acting talent collected in the film. I agree that it’s emotionally manipulative but it’s also inspirational and a heartwarming, if unrealistic, reminder to see the beauty all around us. Now, who couldn’t use that reminder from time to time, right?
Howard (Will Smith) is stuck in terrible grief. Two years ago, his six-year-old-daughter died and now he’s just a shell of a man, spending time at his ad agency building intricate domino patterns rather than running the company. He speaks to no one and his partners are worried. Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Raffi (Michael Peña) have bent over backwards for the past two years trying to bring Howard out of himself to no avail. Not only is their friend losing his grip on reality, he’s also losing his business. So, Howard’s three friends hatch a ridiculous plot to try and snap Howard out of his melancholy.
Whit, Claire, and Raffi hire three unemployed actors to approach Howard as Death (Helen Mirren), Time (Jacob Latimore), and Love (Keira Knightley), to whom Howard has been writing therapeutic but angry letters. Needing a payday, they agree. The three ad execs also hire a private eye to video the encounters in hopes of getting Howard declared mentally incompetent so they can sell the business.
A side plot, with an ending that is as contrived as the rest of the story, has Howard beginning to open up to a grief counselor (Naomie Harris) after his encounters with Death, Time, and Love. What really impressed me about this story, however, was the way in which the washed-up actors interact with Whit, Claire, and Raffi throughout their crazy caper. Whit mourns his relationship with his daughter, who hates him. Claire grieves over her lack of motherhood, and Raffi suffers from cancer but doesn’t have the courage to tell his family. In unleashing Death, Time, and Love on Howard, they inadvertently benefit from the advice being doled out.
Anyone who has experienced grief or sorrow in life will be able to identify in one way or another with the characters in the film. Death is part of life, not to be feared, but accepted as the doorway to life everlasting with the God of Love. As the funeral liturgy says, “Life has changed, not ended.” Although unlikely, the conclusions the film gives to each of its characters still ring with hope, a hope we know comes from the Lord Jesus. Just as in the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus, we find our salvation, so in moments of grief and sorrow it is always possible to discover the ‘collateral beauty’ all around us if we but open our eyes and hearts. The human stories told in “Collateral Beauty,” as improbable as they may seem, remind us to tap into that beauty which can only enrich our lives because, ultimately, it comes from God.