Some movies are too awful to recommend checking out. Nocturnal Animals, for example, is so ghastly that it's not worth your time. The Girl on the Train is a massacre of an adaptation that should only be used to get viewers to read the far superior book. Mother's Day was an insult to mothers.
But then, once in a while, a movie comes along that is such a disaster, it wraps back around to being wonderful. It's a misfire that becomes a masterpiece, destined to be hate-watched over cocktails for years to come. This holiday season, that movie is Collateral Beauty, a cinematic garbage fire that is the must-see film of the year.
Collateral Beauty boasts a frankly astonishing cast led by Will Smith and including Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren. I count 18 Oscar nominations total between the principal cast members, and yet director David Frankel somehow convinced them all to do this movie.
In the film (which writer Mark Harris accurately referred to as Death Actually on Twitter) Smith plays Howard, a man grieving the loss of his daughter two years prior. He can't cope, and shuts everyone out of his life, refusing to speak even to his friends and business partners (Winslet, Norton and Michael Peña). He's writing letters to the abstract concepts of Love, Time and Death, seeking answers. He rides his bike a lot; seriously, there are upwards of 15 minutes spent on shots of Smith on a bike.
Meanwhile, his business is hemorrhaging money. Unfortunately, Howard has a 60% stake in their company, so his partners can't sell as long as he remains near-catatonic. So naturally, Norton's character Whit decides to hire three actors he meets to play Love, Time and Death with Howard. (The characters themselves remark how deeply terrible this plan is several times, and yet they charge on anyway. Collateral Beauty is that kind of movie.)
The actors (Mirren, Knightley and Jacob Latimore) are tasked with interacting with Howard in public, not to help him through his grief, but so that the partners can deem him incompetent. On the way, however, the partners each connect with one actor. Winslet, a woman facing down her biological clock, bonds with Time. Norton, a divorced man unable to connect with his daughter, learns from Love. Peña, who is secretly sick and getting worse, gets Death.
It's a jarringly awful concept, tasteless and absurd in equal measure. You have to constantly remind yourself that this man's three closest partners are manipulating him into being ruled incompetent two years after his child died. But if it were just a bad idea, Collateral Beauty could maybe overcome it by sheer force of star power and strong dialogue.
But Collateral Beauty is a far grander disaster than that. Any incorrect choice you could imagine Frankel and writer Allan Loeb making, they've made.
For example, there's a scene between Howard and a woman in his grief counseling group, Madeleine (Naomie Harris) in which she says she got some advice from a woman in the hospital as her daughter was dying. The woman told Madeleine to not forget the "collateral beauty." Howard and Madeleine say the words "collateral beauty" back and forth for a few more lines without ever digging into what that idea means. It sounds nice but ultimately signifies nothing — kind of like this movie!
Collateral Beauty runs just over 90 minutes, but you'll spend so much time guffawing and gasping at its foibles (like Mirren hearing Peña cough once, then dramatically asking in a knockoff Whole Foods if he's dying) that the time just flies by. But don't worry: The best is still yet to come.
You see, the last 10 minutes of Collateral Beauty are so unbelievably unhinged — from reality, from common sense, from the basic tenets of storytelling — that the only reaction is sheer joy. It is an on-screen miracle, one best left unspoiled. Just consider, as you watch, how many things had to go wrong for such a star-studded cinematic disaster to occur. One can't help but marvel.
There are some reviewers recommending skipping Collateral Beauty, that it's ultimately not worth your money. They couldn't be more wrong: Collateral Beauty must be seen to be believed.
You can read the reviews or hear from those who have seen it without ever grasping just how cosmic an event this is. I'd argue it's the single most important viewing experience of the season. Sure, La La Land is fun. Yes, Viola Davis is incredible in Fences. But for the remainder of time, you'll be able to tell people you saw Collateral Beauty in theaters (preferably after a few drinks). Those who also saw it will know what you've experienced. You will be bonded with them. You will know to look for the collateral beauty, whatever that is.
If it sounds like this is an overstatement — that no movie could possibly be so bad — go see it. Collateral Beauty proves that brilliance can and will be found in disaster. You'll be horrified, you'll be stunned, you'll laugh so hard you cry. Most importantly, you won't be able to look away.
Collateral Beauty opens in theaters Friday.