Who won? You or the porcelain?
Collateral beauty, the title itself screams poetic and controversial. This movie was heavily criticized because the plot was deemed too complex for no reason, apparently it was the most cruel treatment perpetrated to a grieving character in the history of drama, the actual terms were « emotionally manipulative without understanding how human emotions actually work »(The Guardian). The reviews basically state that the movie was a flop covered up with great stars, with screenwriter Allan Loeb(The Switch,Just Go with It,Here Comes the Broom) and director David Frankel(The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me).
I admit, the movie is mainly made up of big actors: Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris; these people are either nominees or award winners and the other actors are also quite popular too if you are a movie addict like me. But so what? That’s actually better since the characters were wonderfully played. Personally I loved the movie, the actors were fantastic and the story spoke to me. It was funny, sad, yet beautiful and worth it; it was realistic and I loved that!
At the beginning of the movie, you see a successful advertising executive, Howard(Will Smith), explain how his philosophy of life is made up of three components. He asks « What is your why? Time, love and death. These three things connect every single human being on Earth. We long for love. We wish we had more time. And we fear death.» Three years later, he has lost all will of life after the death of his six year old daughter. His estranged friends and work partners, Whit(Edward Norton), Claire(Kate Winslet) and Simon(Michael Pena), are worried about him and what will happen to the company since he was the life of the company. Since he has most of the company shares, they can’t do anything without his approval but how can you talk to a person who’s living but isn’t truly alive? So they hire a private investigator to show the board that he’s mentally unfit to make the decision himself. At this point of the movie, you will probably think how can they call themselves friends of his if they need to prove he’s crazy to achieve their goals. However getting a glimpse at Howard’s pretense of living, it all makes sense.
At work, he spends his days working on elaborate, complex domino structure that he tumbles down to start all over again. Personally I find it fitting, his life is like a huge, fascinating structure that was destroyed by a simple flick of a switch and now he has to rebuilt it from scratch, yet he can not so he start over again and again. Later he either goes out to ride all night venturing around town, he cycles as hard and as fast as he can like his life depends on it and sometimes ludicrously he cycles straight in front of cars in a way almost resembling a temptation aimed at death. Or he writes letters, he writes letters to Death, Love and Time respectively and post them with no address. When his friends find out, they have the idea to hire three actors to represent those three entities and respond to his letter. The goal is for him to have a reaction publicly for the investigator to film it.
Amy as Love(Keira Knightley) works with Whit to find a way to introduce herself, coincidently Whit is a divorced father is having trouble reconnecting with his daughter because he cheated on the mother. Brigitte as Death(Helen Mirren) works with Simon who just happens to have terminal cancer, he’s dying. Finally, there is Raffi as Time(Jacob Latimore) who works with Claire, funny enough, she is looking at sperm donors as she realizes that she spent so much time working she completely dismissed her private life. As the story goes on, Brigitte convinces Simon to tell his family that he has terminal cancer. Whit, on the other hand, pays Amy by promising that he will reconnect with his daughter. And Raffi shows to Claire that time isn’t working against her, maybe time itself is just an illusion. Why am I talking about these coincidences? Well I don’t just see them as coincidences, it would be like hitting the bull’s eye three times in a row. The people who were originally paid as actors to play abstract entities were now helping their employers as those same characters they were paid to be. What if they were not playing at all? You can see it’s hinted even in the way they look like. Death is an old lady dressed in all blue, Time is a young man dressed in all white with a skateboard and Love is a young girl wearing a pink raincoat both capable of crying and talking about hope and faith. Blue is the color of sadness plus it’s more flashy and lively than black which makes sense since death is part of the cycle of life. White is a neutral color and the skateboard left untouched can lay there or you can push as it glides wherever you may lead it to. Whereas pink is the color of romance, a person in love ‘voit la vie en rose’ as the french would say which literally means seeing life in pink; crying, hope and faith are all part of loving, true love makes you ache, laugh, yearn, smile, it can make you feel like you belong, just like it can uproot everything that is familiar to you; it is like a rollercoaster than everybody wants to be tall enough to ride onto.
Now Howard might be depressed but he is certainly not crazy. On some nights, he watches from afar a support group of grieving parents who meet weekly but he never joined in, until his first encounters with the three abstractions he wrote to. That day, he manages to walk in but he does not share. After the session, Madeleine(Naomi Harris), the group facilitator goes to Howard. She shares about the death of her own 6 year old daughter, Olivia, then she asks about his daughter but he can not even utter her name. She drops the subject and talks to him about how the death of her child ended her marriage and shows a note from her husband that said « If only we could be strangers again. » He hesitantly tells her that he has been hallucinating about death, time and love. Madeleine tells him how as she was outside her baby girl’s hospital room crying, an old woman talked to her and told her to remember about the ‘collateral beauty’. At the moment, she didn’t get it; however a year later it hit her.
Frankly, watching the trailer, I wasn’t interested by the movie. And as I watched, I was proved wrong. Mainly for two reasons, at the end, we see Howard go to Madeleine’s house as she’s watching a video of her ex husband and late daughter. We find out that it’s Howard, he breaks down and she manages to finally say the name of their daughter, Olivia. I also find it ironic how Amy managed to lure Whit to the theatre where she’s performing with Brigitte and Raffi on a play that needs funding. Moreover after getting paid, Raffi helps Claire in her dilemma and implicitly points out that he is time. On top of that, in the final scene we see Howard and Madeleine walking in a park, he sees Brigitte, Raffi and Amy and they disappear when Madeleine turns. Then we find out that the lady that told Madeleine about Collateral beauty was Brigitte, confirming that she is death. This movie is mind-blowing. This movie might be a bit weird for some, but that is why it is so magical. It’s simply unique in its complexity.