This review contains basic plot details for Collateral Beauty, which, for some reason, were not included in the movie’s trailer. If you don’t want to know the movie’s premise, don’t read this article. I would also recommend not seeing the movie, but that’s up to you.

I have seen Collateral Beauty, a movie in which a character delivers a five-minute monologue about the phrase “collateral beauty,” and I still don’t know what “collateral beauty” means. I think it has something to do with the good things that can come from a loved one’s death? But I’m honestly not sure. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to watch this thing a second time to figure it out.

No one would ever question Will Smith’s star power, charisma, or acting chops. But sometimes you have to wonder about his taste. He showed good judgment in passing on Independence Day: Resurgence, and even if the finished product was lacking, signing on for Suicide Squad made a lot of sense (and the movie was a big hit). But look at the rest of the guy’s recent IMDb page. ConcussionSeven PoundsAfter EarthWinter’s Tale? Now he’s got Collateral Beauty, which is not only the worst of the bunch, it’s also a terrible vehicle for Smith and the things he does best onscreen.

We get to see the Will Smith we love — gregarious, charming, perfect smile — for just one scene, the first in the film. He plays Howard Inlet, a successful ad executive rallying his company with an inspiring speech about the three primal forces in life: Love, time, and death. These three concepts determine everything we do and everything we buy. (Even, I suppose, tickets to bad movies.) As Howard delivers his message, his partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña), watch with rapt attention. All is right in the world.

A single camera movement fast-forwards past three years, and Howard morphs into a graying, moping shell of a man. In the interim, Howard’s daughter died, and he can’t handle his grief. He still shows up at his company’s chic New York office every day, but not to work. Instead he spends weeks building elaborate domino shows and then toppling them over. With its creative genius uninterested in his job, Howard’s business begins to falter, and his partners decide the only course of action is to sell the place to a bigger company. But Howard controls too many shares, and he refuses to even discuss the possibility of a sale — or anything else, for that matter. After the opening scene, Smith barely speaks for 30 minutes.

Smith spends a lot of Collateral Beauty’s first act in the background while Whit, Claire, and Simon engineer a scheme that is misguided at best and morally repulsive at worst. Fearful for their jobs and financial futures, they hire a group of actors from a nearby theater company to portray Howard’s three abstract concepts — Love, Time, and Death — and interact with him in public places. They plan to film him talking to these actors (played by Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, and Helen Mirren, respectively), then digitally erase them from the footage so it looks like Howard’s talking to himself, then present that as evidence at a board meeting. That should get Howard deemed mentally incompetent and enable the other partners to sell the business out from under him.

Short of actually murdering Howard or digging up his dead daughter’s corpse for kicks, this seems like the worst thing his three best friends could do to him. (It’s also got to be illegal, right?) The film eventually drops a couple of outlandish third-act twists, but nothing about Collateral Beauty’s ending is half as shocking as the fact that it treats its central conspiracy not as a monstrous betrayal, but as cutesy fodder for an inspiring Christmas dramedy full of warm lessons and tearful reconciliations. Each of Howard’s partners has their own issues to deal with, and each gets paired off with the actor portraying the abstract concept relevant to their problem. Knightley teaches Norton about how to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Lattimore tries to convince Winslet that it’s not too late to start a family, and Mirren counsels Peña about how to address a secret he’s hiding from his wife. And so they all grow and mature while, y’know, ruining their friend’s career forever.

This is the most baffling choice in a movie that might as well be called Baffling Choices. (It’s at least a better title than Collateral Beauty.) So many of the decisions by director David Frankel and writer Allan Loeb make absolutely no sense. Why would you cast Will Smith in a role where he barely speaks, vanishes completely for long stretches, and gets tortured by his so-called friends? Why pepper a movie about a borderline suicidal man and the death of his young child with so many jokes? Why treat the first half of this story like a comedy but hire no actual comedians to play the leading roles? Why clog the ending of your straightforward story of loss and healing with multiple plot twists?

These mysteries will surely turn Collateral Beauty in a legendary Hollywood movie, one that’s not so much so-bad-it’s-good as so-bad-it-doesn’t-seem-real. The subject matter is too consistently depressing, and the visuals too competently mounted (with crisp cinematography by Maryse Alberti and solid use of New York locations) for Collateral Beauty to become a cult favorite. But those that do see it will remember it forever.

When I made my way into the Manhattan theater that hosted last night’s Collateral Beauty press screening, the usher looked at my ticket and said “Collateral Damage? Straight down to the back.” It was an honest mistake; “collateral damage” is an actual phrase, unlike collateral beauty, and it’s also an actual movie. In fact, Collateral Damage was a more nuanced look at parental grief than Collateral Beauty, which is really saying something since Collateral Damage was an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in which a terrorist asked Schwarzenegger, “When are you going to kill me?” and he replied, “Now!” and then threw an ax through his chest.


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