They say the Universe hears us and answers.
But what if you want to dialogue with the profoundest of abstractions – Love, Time and Death?
What if you write them letters and they take on flesh to trade words with you, to cajole and argue?
Frankly, I’d like to see that sometime, dreamer that I am.
Because in the movie “Collateral Beauty” that’s exactly what happened to Howard (Will Smith), an advertising executive who succeeded by making this triumvirate the mantra of the company he founded.
“Time, love and death. These three things connect every single human being on Earth,” he declared at the film’s opening scene. “We long for love. We wish we had more time. And we fear death.”
Then Howard’s six-year old daughter dies and he is paralyzed with grief.
He divorces his wife. For the next two years, he becomes a zombie, brooding at the dog park by day, racing his bicycle heedlessly through the streets by night. Sometimes, he stops in the darkness outside the window of a grief support group in session but never goes in.
In his office, he does nothing but fiddle with domino mazes, stacking thousands of plastic tiles in elaborate patterns just to make them collapse with a single nudge as soon as he finishes – an odd simile to his life and career – and everyone else’s for that matter.
Howard ‘s business partners – Whit (Edward Norton), the idea-guy whose name appears alongside his on the company masthead, Claire (Kate Winslet), his savvy account director and Simon (Michael Peña), his stalwart general counsel – desperately tried to jolt him out of stasis.
Obviously, they are just as flawed as Howard, each with their own problems.
Whit struggles to repair his relationship with his teenage daughter, Allison Yardshaw (Kylie Rogers), after he cheated on Allison’s mother and she divorced him. Claire wants to be a single mom at 40, hunting for sperm donors to conceive a child after putting her best years in her high-powered job. Simon battles cancer, hiding his illness from his wife and newborn son while worrying he’ll leave them nothing when he dies.
So, the three hit on this bizarre scheme of making Howard look crazy to wrest control of his company, whom he can no longer run, and everyone can get on with their lives. It’s cruel, though they insist they’re doing it out of love.
When the conspirators put a private investigator on Howard’s tail, they discovered he’s been writing letters to Love, Time and Death – like a modern-day King Lear, howling to the gods.
They hired actors to impersonate Howard’s abstractions and pursue him through New York City at Christmas time. Their investigator captured the encounters on camera. Then they deleted the actors from the footage and showed the doctored film to the company’s board of directors.
Fact is, Love, Time and Death are penniless actors who can’t even afford to mount their dream play onstage.
But they put on a great performance, nonetheless.
Death (Helen Mirren) sat with Howard as he brooded on his bench in the dog park, an old dame in an electric blue coat and hat. Love (Keira Knightley) accosted him on the street, a beauty clad in red. Time (Jacob Latimore), an angry bronze youth in a skateboard, chased him on his bike.
Death showed a sense of dry humor and playfulness, brandishing Howard’s letter at his face as he raged at her.
He didn’t blow his top though – until Time confronted him.
In his letter, he ranted, ‘You’re dead tissue; you’re petrified; you kill beauty; you ruin things.” Told he was wrong, that Time is a gift he’s squandering by doing nothing, Howard shoves off the youth impersonating Time and smashes his skateboard.
Howard’s letter to Love simply said, “Goodbye”. Passionately, Love argued giving up on her is not an option.
Overall, I found “Collateral Beauty” both weepy and funny, poignant and absurd. Yet, it’s something I’ve never seen before. And it intrigued me.
I’d reckon that even the weird title of the movie itself was coined as a deliberate paradox. The characters talked about it but never really spelled out what it meant.
The dictionary defines “collateral” as “additional”, “secondary”.
Off the bat, I think of “collateral damage” – as in civilian casualties in bombing targets during war, not part of the target but killed off just because they happened to be there.
Hence, I’ll take it to mean that “collateral beauty” is the unintended, unexpected beauty that comes with the ugliness of death, kindness resulting from tragedies, the other side of constant universal dualities, such as joy and pain, darkness and light.
“It’s those things we sometimes take for granted or don’t notice all the time, but that might be there every day, like a sunset or a fleeting thing, like a child’s smile,” explained director David Frankel.
“There are millions of examples of collateral beauty. They’re the reason that we go on. Discovering those moments illuminated by every tragic event is an emotional and spiritual journey unique to each individual, yet something that we all share.”
Just don’t expect answers, he warned.
“I don’t expect people to come away with a deeper understanding of these profound ideas of Love, Time and Death. But they might be moved to think about how it affects their own lives. I hope to give audiences a life-affirming, chest-swelling experience that takes them out of the everyday and gives them something to talk about.”