TL;DR: In Collateral Beauty, Will Smith as Howard Inlet is a father whose daughter has passed away and has retreated in on himself – shutting out his friends, his job, and the world at large. As a catharsis he writes letters addressed simply to Death, Love, and Time as those concepts who have most wronged him in having taken his daughter from him. Those entities helpfully show up to try to bring him back to the real world.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
So overall, there's nothing really new here. We've seen Smith dealing with anguish in Seven Pounds; dedication to family and determination in The Pursuit of Happiness; and being scheduled for award season in Concussion. We know the idea of "spirits manifest to a troubled soul to help them get back on the path to happiness and self-awareness" (it is Christmas, so echoes of It's a Wonderful Life can't be completely dismissed).
It does seem like cancer is very much in the forefront of many people's minds these days. Rare is it that a week goes by that we don't learn of another friend or extended family member who is impacted by it. As such we have not just one but two films coming out that touch on facing the grief and loss that is experienced by those facing it. Where A Monster Calls is aimed more at helping to heal younger members of the audience, Collateral Beauty is for the adults in the crowd.
The film opens with Smith and his business partners (played by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Pena) at a successful advertising agency addressing the employees with a rousing speech of how they are to use the tenants of Love, Death, and Time to succeed.
A fade out/fade in, and we're back three years later. Howard is a completely different man – greying hair, sunken eyes, and totally removed from his friends and coworkers. They do their best to reach out, but it's clear he's broken and in a black pit of despair within himself. We find out in pieces about the loss of his daughter.
As much as the movie is about Howard, it's also about how his grief impacts his friends around him. The company is rapidly declining, but they want to help him through it. Other films might feel compelled to add more of a villain, but there really isn't one, and the driving force of the film is the love his friends have for him.
To help himself cope, Howard writes letters to Love, Death, and Time – expressing his disappointment, rage, and how they have utterly let him and humanity down with their seeming ambivalence to the suffering they cause.
Much to his shock, those entities actually begin to appear to him (Helen Mirren as Death, Jacob Latimore as Time, and Keira Knightley as Love), at first complaining about his unjust assessment of their work (they have his letters in hand), and then trying to urge him not to lose sight of what else is around him – the "collateral beauty".
In the end the film is fine, it will give the audience some sniffles, but credit really must be given not so much to Smith, but to the trio of friends – Norton, Winslet, and Pena all have their own demons which each pairs with one of the three aspects to have their own stories. Those are as engaging (if not more so) than the main Smith storyline and it would have been nice if the film might have had another 20 or 30 minutes (it only runs 96 minutes) to let those stories breathe, and to let the ending be a bit more settled.
If it is taken on a movie to recommend to those who are facing losses from cancer or other illnesses, it would likely feel better had we not just screened the aforementioned Monster Calls, which has to be said is the superior of the two films for those needing support through a very dark time. Granted, the other difference between the two would be Calls would be for those who are in the process of losing someone, and Beauty would be for those who have lost them.
Sadly too often, these aren't movies that we would seek out to really be "entertained" by, but to help us in times of sadness or need. To remind us that loss is not unique to each of us, but is unfortunately shared by far too many others. This is one of those movies we probably need.