“The audience for a movie of this kind becomes the lowest common denominator of feeling: a sponge.” So wrote Pauline Kael in response to The Sound of Music, blaming the victims when it was still politically correct to do so. Looking into Hollywood’s dollar-sign eyes quickly explains how the film industry sidestepped laying prostrate at Kael’s hemline, and yet how often have shameless tearjerkers really run the table at the box office in this millennium? Do modern audiences still need their catharsis delivered via the safety of chosen trigger warnings? Has the nobility of the collective cry been mitigated by just how many actual life opportunities we’ve been dealt?
In a recent podcast, Film Comment explored the film function most regularly maligned by, well, the magazine’s core demographic: jerking tears. And they wisely included among that week’s panel one of high culture’s lone remaining proponents of craft-driven cinematic populism: Mark Harris. The panel congregated around writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s funereal Manchester by the Sea, understandably, but one regrets that they didn’t wait a few weeks for the arrival of David Frankel’s Collateral Beauty, to contrast thesis with antithesis. Not every tear tastes bittersweet.
The difference between the film that Collateral Beauty is and the film that its previews are trying to sell us is far more interesting than either. (Not a high benchmark, admittedly.) The preview positions Sad Will Smith being visited by the three ghosts of secular Christmas films past, all quite fixated on making him cry so that he may finally move on with his life, which like the elaborate domino sequences he orchestrates has been in an eternal state of collapse since the death of his young daughter. He’s written letters to Love, Time, and Death—and then they start sitting next to him on park benches for pithy chats.
The preview sells prospective audiences on the simple magic of redemption, taking life’s guiding philosophical concerns and letting Hallmark Channel-grade dialogue do all the digesting for you. It leads you to believe that none of Sad Will Smith’s co-workers—Sorta Sad Kate Winslet, Almost Sad Edward Norton, and Not Particularly Sad Michael Peña—believe that he’s conversing with the recipients of his correspondence. The preview suggests that only when we believe do we see, literally, the extraordinary in our own lives.
That would be hokey enough, even forgivably and forgettably bad, but the film itself tosses out a scenario even less credible. As it turns out, Sad Will Smith’s co-workers are trying to sell their advertising agency off to a conglomerate but won’t be able to do it unless their grieving CEO, who holds a majority stock, signs off. And Sad Will Smith isn’t taking any calls on any level whatsoever. A private investigator that his co-workers hire informs them that Sad Will Smith has been writing those anguished letters, and Almost Sad Edward Norton gets the bright idea to hire a few actors he met serendipitously to play the parts of Love, Time, and Death. That way they’ll be able to declare Sad Will Smith legally incompetent to make important business decisions. Nothing warms the heart quite like corporate gaslighting, right?
Anyone who’s ever seen a film or even heard about films in general will probably figure out pretty quickly that the actors stand to teach not only Sad Will Smith, their one-man audience, but also their heartless temporary supervisors lessons in love, time, and death. Up until its last 10 minutes, which are marked by not just one but two inane plot devices that practically invalidate the entirety of what preceded them, Collateral Beauty doesn’t genuflect before the power of miracles (as advertised). It argues that they can be manufactured by those who can fund them.