With its theme of inconsolable grief and how to cope with it, director David Frankel’s (Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada) Collateral Beauty has the kind of story one usually experiences in low budget indies by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch. But this is a New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures, et al, feature being distributed by Warner Bros. with an A-list cast, written by Allan Loeb (the similarly-themed Things We Lost in the Fire, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), a screenwriter who “doggedly pursues and creates unique, character-driven films… grounded in authentic emotion, poignant honesty, and a deep sense of humanity,” according to press notes.
In Beauty Will Smith plays the unhinged, grief-stricken Howard, a head honcho of a Manhattan advertising firm whose personal loss has come to threaten the very survival of the advertising firm he has co-created with his partners: Whit (Ed Norton), Simon (Michael Peña) and Claire (Kate Winslet). What I especially liked in Beauty is that instead of being primarily motivated by greed like the despicable characters in productions such as the Showtime series House of Lies and Wall Street, they have a genuine desire to rescue their friend from his emotional hell. No mere 21st century Mad Men are they.
[POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT!] To save Howard the trio resorts to an unusual but imaginative ploy that involves casting three stage actors. The redoubtable Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore incarnate three profound aspects of human existence. In personifying these existential attributes Beauty is actually reminiscent of the reflective medieval morality play Everyman and is similarly philosophical about the meaning of life.
Speaking of acting, in Beauty the lovely British actress Naomie Harris (whose parents are from the Caribbean) portrays Madeleine, who seems to be a grief counselor (sans English accent). Ms. Harris is probably best known to auds as M’s flirtatious secretary Miss Moneypenny (Brit accent intact) integrating the last two Daniel Craig 007 thrillers, as well as Winnie in the 2013 biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Her convincing performance as a New Yorker in Beauty demonstrates her range as an actress.
The topnotch cast alone makes Beauty worth seeing. As the forlorn Howard Will Smith arguably turns in his best performance since 2001’s Ali - one of two movies he was Oscar-nominated for. Amidst the justifiable #OscarsTooWhite hubbub last year the Academy was accused of “snubbing” Smith last year for his acting in Concussion. This was the worst kind of “message movie,” in that Concussion was an overly pedantic diatribe, with characters - notably Smith - repeatedly delivering speeches. As I am personally opposed to the violence football causes I’m in the minority of reviewers who actually liked this film, although to be honest Smith did not deserve a nomination for it. However, his sensitive, rather deep depiction of Howard in Beauty may well be Oscar worthy.
Howard’s trio of partners, played by the talented Norton, Winslet and Peña, are three dimensional sympathetic characters with their own problems and realistic back stories. Loeb also pokes fun at those who say his words, the foibles of thespians: Mirren is humorously hammy, Knightley fusses over her character’s motivation and so on.
Also worth mentioning is award-winning French cinematographer Maryse Alberti, whose shots of my old hometown are a bit of a love letter to Manhattan. I especially enjoyed location shots such as in the subway at Lafayette Street, at West Fourth Street and Beauty has a simply beautiful overhead shot of my old “campus” when I majored in cinema at Hunter College: This may well be the best aerial shot ever of Central Park in a feature.
Having said all this some viewers may find this film to be too serious and full of mourning for the Christmas season (when some of the action takes place), and might perhaps prefer one of those raucous holiday pictures like the outrageously hilarious Bad Santa II (a rare Hollywood sequel that is actually better than the original and highly recommended for those who relish outrageous comedy). In a society where Christmas is more a celebration of commercialism than of the birth of Christ, do seasonal moviegoers want to see films that are thought-provoking or flicks that will make them laugh their asses off? Aye, that’s the question. In any case, like those Christian and Mystery plays Beauty seems inspired by, this is a highly philosophical film that may be best-suited for those with meditative minds that reflect on those big questions, such as: What’s it all about?
Speaking of philosophy and film: I enjoy the KPCC radio arts show The Frame, which deserves the highest praise this Angeleno could possibly heap upon it: Listening to The Frame even makes L.A. rush hour traffic tolerable and is a strong antidote to road rage.
In late November I think it was I heard program host John Horn’s interview with the great French actress Isabelle Huppert and the director of her new film Things to Come. I believe during the piece Horn said something to the effect that there weren’t other films with philosophy professor characters.
In fact, in 2015 Joaquin Phoenix portrayed a philosophy professor in Woody Allen's 2015 philosophically named Irrational Man. (Coincidentally, Phoenix's co-star in that movie, Emma Stone, was recently interviewed on The Frame.)
There have also been about 12 filmed versions of Voltaire's Candide, including of Leonard Bernstein's musical adaptation of Candide with book by Lillian Hellman, a 1991 TV movie wherein Adolph Green played the philosophy professor Dr. Pangloss. There was also a 1962 French TV movie based directly on Voltaire's novel per se with Robert Vattier as Pangloss, et al.
In 1971 the great Roberto Rossellini directed the TV movie Socrates and in 1982 James Mason starred in another production titled Socrates. There was a 2010 European film named The Death of Socrates with a variety of actors portraying the Greek philosopher in various segments, etc.
Godard's 1969 Le Gai Savoir adapts a text by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with Jean-Pierre Leaud playing a character named Emile Rousseau (although he may not be a philosophy professor per se). And so on. Nevertheless, The Frame remains the best show, in this, the best of all possible programs to listen to when stuck on the freeway. Although, as Alexander Pope noted: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
While Collateral Beauty is not about a philosophy professor per se (with the possible exception of Mr. Loeb himself), it’s a well-acted, well-written collaterally philosophical film for those who enjoy thinking and truth seeking cinema.