2018 Film Essays

‘Collateral Beauty’: The Sinister Holiday Fable We Deserve

When the ensemble drama Collateral Beauty was released in December of 2016, it was instantly derided as one of the most misguided studio efforts in modern memory. Since then, the would-be Christmas classic has achieved a level of infamy that’s kept it relevant: along with a couple other recent howlers — 2017’s The Book of Henry and this year’s Life Itself — it’s helped comprise a new canon of cult oddities, film’s that aren’t so-bad-they’re-good, but so bat-shit wrongheaded they must be seen to be believed.

But what separates Collateral Beauty from those other examples is the internal logic of its overarching philosophy, the same which establishes it as one of the premiere holiday fable for our times, the anti-It’s a Wonderful Life that this moment of atrophied capitalism deserves.

Considering its dismal return at the box office, chances are you might not have seen Collateral Beauty, so a plot synopsis is in order. However, that’s… difficult. 

Per IMDB: “When a successful New York advertising executive suffers a great tragedy, he retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to love, time and death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.”

Much like the film’s misleading trailer, that synopsis intentionally avoids a major plot point: the above-mentioned “concerned friends” (played by Michael Peña, Kate Winslet and Edward Norton — all giving career worst performances) attempting to help ad exec Howard Inlet (Will Smith, career worst performance) are in fact partners at his agency, and their concern for his personal well-being is not their driving motivation. You see, Howard’s grief over losing his young daughter has been bad for business, and while he has no interest in salvaging his crumbling company (though for some reason he still shows up every day at the office, clean-shaved and dressed like a Banana Republic model), neither will he give the go-ahead to a merger that would solve everyone’s problems.

At the end of their respective ropes, the partners decide to have Howard forcibly removed from the board of directors on a medical pretext. They uncover his one-sided correspondence with the universe, and even as they acknowledge it as a clear form of therapy, they decide to use it against Howard, hiring a trio of stage actors (Keira Knightley — career worst performance, Helen Mirren — career worst performance, and Jacob Latimore — hopefully a career worst performance, but he’s still young), at the rate of $25,000 per person, to embody Love, Time and Death and confront Howard in the hopes of getting him to have a public meltdown. 

With the help of some impossibly fantastic technological manipulation (a private eye captures these confrontations on her cell phone and then digitally erases the actors, making it look like Howard is talking to imaginary people), their plan succeeds. When presented with the criminally manipulated footage, Howard signs off on the merger, saving everyone’s jobs and netting himself and his friends a neat little fortune.

The plan also has the residual effect of curing Howard’s depression, allowing him to overcome his grief and move on with his life. The business partners also receive pat closure for their various subplots, all in time for Christmas.

You can see why critics and audiences had a field day with this movie. It presents the scheming business partners and hired actors as noble in their intentions and heroic in their success, even as it outright acknowledges that they’re plan is to gaslight a grieving father (“gaslight” may actually be too soft a term; what they’re doing is more like gang stalking). 

But there’s more: in one of two ridiculous twist endings, it turns out the actors hired to play Love, Time and Death are, in fact, Love, Time and Death. They were only pretending to be actors, taking on human forms in order to come down to earth and doll out catharsis to this group of sad one-percenters. 

If that were all there was to it, Collateral Beauty would still earn its reputation as a shockingly misguided, morally reprehensible film. But there’s a small detail that bestows upon it unintentional thematic heft and sinister resonance: you see, Love, Time and Death keep the money that the partners agreed to pay them.

To understand why this is so important, one must examine who exactly these supernatural agents are. While they resemble generic guardian angels, they’re actually given a specific name: The Three Abstractions. The first scene of the film is the key to explaining their nature, as well as the film’s overarching philosophy: 

Director David Frankel opens Collateral Beauty with a pre-bereavement Howard — introduced as “the resident poet-philosopher of product, the rebel command of brand, the guru who terrifies Madison Avenue”– as he gives a New Age-y inspirational speech to his partners and employees, his monologue comprised of eye-rolling bromides such as “What is your why?” and “Advertising is about illuminating how our products and service will improve people’s lives.” The crux of his speech revolves are what he considers the three foundational abstractions upon which society and commerce are built: love, time and death. 

According to Howard, “These three abstractions connect every human being on earth. Everything that we covet, everything that we fear not having, everything that we ultimately end up buying is because at the end of the day we long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death. Love, time, death.”

Howard is Corporate Culture personified. In in the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted version of this film, he would be presented as a charlatan or a despot, a wolf in sheep’s cardigan who smilingly extolls the manipulation of elemental forces in the name of the profit motive. In Frankel’s film, though, viewers are meant to look upon him as a figure of pure benevolence, a good man in the George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) mode, even though his wealth and stature put him closer to that film’s villain, Mr. Potter (Howard’s speech involves a crack about firing people — George Bailey he ain’t).

Howard’s introduction is the first of several fundamental misunderstandings the film holds in regard to audiences’ rooting interest, but it’s also the entryway to a deeper reading of the film. Because while it fails to establish Howard as a sympathetic hero, it does establish him as something else, something much more important: it establishes him as a prophet, possibly even the Messiah — his mini-Ted Talk tantamount to the Sermon on the Mount. 

When the film cuts to three years later and Howard’s a broken man, one could just as well be looking upon Job in his desolation, Jonah in the belly of the whale, even Christ on the cross. Howard has rejected his faith, with the angry letters he’s written to the Three Abstractions being his long-winded version of “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” But like all prophets, it is in his moment of ultimate doubt that he’s delivered unto salvation via the intervention of his business partners (or, viewed in this context, his disciples).

But remember: said salvation is entirely ancillary to the original purpose of their self-interested intervention. It’s a Wonderful Life opens with people praying to God and the heavens to intervene on George Bailey’s behalf. But in Collateral Beauty, there’s no such cosmic supplication, only an under-the-table business deal. The Three Abstractions are hired to do a job, and they are compensated upon its completion per the agreed-upon terms.

While the premise of It’s a Wonderful Life also revolves around a compensatory transaction — the angel Clarence has to stop George Bailey from committing suicide in order to earn his wings — there is a marked difference between that film’s climatic ringing of the bells and a scene near the end of Collateral Beauty where a viscerally uncomfortable white woman hands a bundle of cash over to a black teenager — who literally pockets it — in the middle of a graffiti strewn neighborhood. 

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey earns divine intervention because he spent his entire life putting the needs of others before his own, up to and including his own guardian angel. In Collateral Beauty, divine intervention is a service rendered, just another means the wealthy have at their disposal. It’s no coincidence that the Three Abstractions take the form of a theater troupe. As in real life, art bends to the demand of commerce. So too, apparently, does the divine, with the touch of God coming from the invisible hand of the market. It makes perfect sense that a modern-day prophet would be an ad executive and CEO.  

There’s an unsettling strain of antihuman sentiment running throughout the film — a motif of omnipresent surveillance, references to psychostimulants (including a direct shout out to Aldous Huxley), eerily oppressive set-dressing (a climactic scene takes place in an executive board room that could double for a Bond villain’s liar, replete with a row of sinister-looking TV monitors that slowly descend from the ceiling). Even the character’s names fail to resemble those of actual human beings — Norton’s character is named Whit Yardsham for Christ’s sake.

After my initial viewing of Collateral Beauty, I joked to my friends that we’d just watched the first movie written entirely by A.I., and though I’ve since read Allan Loeb’s unbelievably masturbatory script (its epigraph reads: “This is a fable… remember those?”), I’m not entirely convinced that I was wrong. This truly does feel like a religious fable farmed out via an automated word generator, one funded by corporate studio execs and programmed by Madison Avenue hacks and Instagram influencers.

That all, to my thinking, only helps solidify the film as the modern heir to It’s a Wonderful Life. The moral resonance of “no man is poor who has friends” doesn’t exactly acclimate itself to the spirit of our age. “Fuck you, pay me,” does. 

Heed the film’s advice: this holiday season — while you’re stressing about money, while you’re scrounging last minute for gifts, while you’re being relentlessly bombarded by holiday advertisements, while you’re arguing over dinner with your awful family about Donald Trump, healthcare and the economy — take a moment to soak up the collateral beauty that exists all around you.

Zach Vasquez (@zach_vasquez) lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Little White Lies, Crooked Marquee, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. His archival blog is ohmanohgod.blog.