‘Collateral Beauty’ explores the wonder of existence

“Collateral Beauty” (2106). Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Jacob Lattimore, Ann Dowd, Kylie Rogers, Mary Beth Peil, Alyssa Cheatham. Director: David Frankel. Screenplay: Allen Loeb. Web site. Trailer.

Reality can be a funny thing. We can be going along just fine when something suddenly comes out of left field to totally disrupt everything. What’s that all about? And how are we supposed to cope? Much depends on how we view the fundamental functioning of existence – and the role we play in it. Those are the issues that play out in the wondrous new holiday offering, “Collateral Beauty.”

When successful New York ad agency owner Howard Inlet (Will Smith) loses his child (Alyssa Cheatham) to a rare illness, his life falls apart. He becomes withdrawn, abandoning virtually all of his personal and professional relationships and disposing of most of his material possessions. He rarely eats, sleeps or speaks, and he spends most of his office time pointlessly setting up elaborate domino arrangements that he takes little joy in when he finally activates them. In fact, about the only contact he has with outsiders is occasional attendance at the meetings of a support group for parents who’ve lost children, sessions moderated by a sensitive facilitator named Madeleine (Naomie Harris).

Needless to say, Howard’s business begins to suffer seriously, largely because he’s no longer putting any time or attention into the company’s most lucrative accounts, many of which are based on the personal relationships he’s cultivated with client contacts over the years. This worries three of his partners, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and Simon Scott (Michael Peña), who are helplessly watching the agency racing toward financial ruin. Thankfully, there’s a possible solution to their fiscal woes – a potential buyout. However, for the deal to go through, Whit, Claire and Simon need Howard to vote his majority shares in favor of the deal, and, given his state of mind, it’s unclear he’s even competent enough to grasp the nature of the transaction, let alone see through his part of the plan.

In assessing the situation, Whit, Claire and Simon conclude that their only hope is to somehow get Howard declared mentally unfit to participate in the share vote. They dislike the idea, but they also believe they don’t have any other option. So, to build a case against him, they reluctantly hire private detective Sally Price (Ann Dowd) to follow him in hopes of gathering evidence indicative of his state of mind.

After skulking about behind Howard’s back, Sally collects some intriguing information about her subject. Howard, it seems, is writing letters to vent his feelings, though he’s not penning them to anyone in particular. Rather, he composes (and even mails) missives to abstract concepts – love, time and death. His pointedly critical screeds venomously attack these notions, which is ironic, given that he once credited the impact of these principles with the growth and development of his business.

But are these letters enough to demonstrate the instability of Howard’s mental state? As Claire observes, such writings could be construed as a form of therapy. If she and her collaborators hope to make a case, they need something more substantive, something that can be documented to prove their partner’s allegedly delusional behavior.

Nothing immediately comes to mind, but, one night, while Whit is at home caring for his aging mother (Mary Beth Peil), a stroke survivor, he gets an idea that he shares with Claire and Simon. In the time he has been looking after his mother, Whit has come to realize that her mental state sometimes becomes a bit wonky. He initially tried communicating with her based on his perceptions of reality, but that often became frustrating for both of them, mainly because she couldn’t understand where he was coming from. So, eventually, rather than trying to force her to relate to him on his terms, he began trying to relate to her on her terms, a decision that seemed to solve most of the communications and interpersonal relationship issues.

In light of that, then, Whit proposes that they employ a comparable approach in handling their investigation into Howard’s behavior. After a chance encounter with a trio of talented stage actors, Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Lattimore), Whit suggests hiring them to portray the concepts to whom Howard writes his letters. By talking to Howard on his level, the actors can engage in esoteric exchanges with him, conversations not unlike those that Whit has with his mother. To turn such dialogues into “proof” of Howard’s delusional state, Whit proposes that they be held in very visible, highly public places, with Sally surreptitiously recording the “evidence” in the background. And, to further bolster the strength of their case, Whit recommends making the recordings appear one-sided – by deleting all visual and audio references of the actors. It’s a tactic that no one is especially comfortable with, but, again, Whit, Claire and Simon believe they have no choice if they’re to make their case stick.

Not long thereafter, Brigitte (portraying death), Amy (depicting love) and Raffi (playing time) begin meeting with Howard, carrying out the partners’ plan as envisioned. Interestingly, these dialogues begin drawing Howard out of his self-imposed shell, getting him to address the issues that helped cocoon him in the first place. But what’s even more intriguing is that Whit, Claire and Simon unexpectedly find that they each benefit from their interactions with the actors, too. All of which raises the question, who are these people anyway? Convincing thespians? Benevolent spirits in human guise? Something in between? Or something even more cryptic than that? Such is the mystery that plays out as the story moves toward its conclusion, taking viewers on a journey full of feeling, inspiration and wonder.

“Collateral Beauty” is a profoundly engaging – and largely misunderstood – film, one that explores life’s big issues and how we relate to them. In plumbing the depths of those subjects, the picture makes it quite apparent that how we view such concepts as love, death and time depends greatly on our beliefs about them. That’s a crucial point, too, for our beliefs play a pivotal role in the manifestation of the reality we experience. This is the cornerstone concept underlying the functioning of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize the existence around us through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, in many ways, this picture offers audiences a primer on this philosophy as seen through the experiences of characters in need of grasping these principles to create more fulfilling lives for themselves.

What matters most here is how we react to what we’ve manifested. In particular, do we see our circumstances from the perspective of a half-full or half-empty glass? Are we focused on the collateral damage of our existence? Or do we see the collateral beauty that comes out of it, even from circumstances that otherwise appear devastating? It all depends on the beliefs we employ as the lenses through which we perceive our reality. We can view our losses with utter devastation, as Howard does. Or we can look at everything that comes out of such situations, an analysis that might provide us with meaningful and even joyful insights into them, an approach Madeleine takes in coping with her tragedy.

There are no right or wrong answers in this – only choices. Do we want to choose perpetual disappointment? Or are we willing to choose to cherish the joy we experienced, no matter how fleeting? That’s the key question here.

Choice also figures largely into the lives of Whit, Claire and Simon. Collectively, they feel as though their backs are against the wall where the business is concerned, and they’re decidedly uncomfortable with the choices they make for how to resolve it. They’re convinced that they’ll lose a good friend when they present the evidence against him at a competency hearing before the buyout share vote. But is that a faît accompli? Or is another outcome possible? Given the personal feelings that the partners share for Howard, they clearly care about his well-being. And, considering the opportunities he helped make possible for them, the reverse is true as well. So, in light of that, is it guaranteed that the seeming betrayal they’ve orchestrated against him will necessarily result in ill will? Again, it comes down to the beliefs they all share about the nature of their relationships with one another – interactions that are based on belief choices just as much as those employed in the manifestation of virtually any other type of situation.

Choice also looms large in the beliefs governing the private lives of the various partners. Whit, for example, is divorced from his wife after having had an extramarital affair, an incident that has severely strained his relationship with his young daughter, Allison (Kylie Rogers). Claire, meanwhile, has devoted her life to her career, and, with her biological clock now ticking, she’s concerned she’ll never become the mother she’s always dreamed of being. And Simon, whose health is failing, wrestles with disclosing his condition to his family and co-workers, fearing that such an announcement will cause them great emotional harm.

In all three of these cases, the characters can’t see any way out of their circumstances. They feel locked into positions from which they can’t extract themselves. But, again, as conscious creation provides, there are always choices, even if they aren’t easy ones to make. Given their respective circumstances, they could choose to stay stuck in their mindsets; or they could select alternate paths, following courses of dealing that lessen their loads and make their journeys more rewarding in unimagined ways.

From the foregoing, choice is obviously a key component in belief formation, one that’s inherently highly personal in nature. We need not surrender ourselves to the dictates of philosophical, religious or scientific dogma in shaping our own views of reality. Some might even say conscious creation, as a metaphysical philosophy of its own, is fair game for such criticism. However, in its defense, it at least offers us a comparatively broader range of choices for the beliefs we adhere to and the realities we create. We can certainly choose those other options if we believe they best suit us, but we needn’t do so, either, following our own hearts and minds instead.

In his search to find meaning, Howard is coming to understand this. He attempts to explain himself on this point in an impassioned dialogue with Brigitte in which he runs down the flaws of a litany of philosophical, religious and scientific disciplines, schools of thought that offer the promise of figuring out how life works and why it unfolds as it does but that ultimately come up short. On some level, he knows his happiness and well-being come down to the belief choices he makes, but, as this is a comparatively new concept to him, he’s unclear what to do with it or how to proceed. However, those are precisely the lessons he must learn if he hopes to bring himself out of his imprisoning depression – choosing to be happy and on his terms, based on his choices and beliefs, an option that conscious creation makes possible.

To a great degree, this is where Howard’s interactions with Brigitte, Amy and Raffi prove so valuable. Their dialogues help him unlock his pent-up feelings, bringing his intangible inner beliefs to the surface, manifested as tangible, physically expressed materializations. The actors ostensibly speak to him on his level, just as Whit predicted they would when he came up with the plan to hire them. Brigitte, Amy and Raffi provide Howard with the means to transform his thoughts into actions (even if it’s just talking), something that was not (or that he had not allowed to be) available to him previously. They afford Howard a chance to express his most heartfelt feelings about love, time and death, making themselves available as corporeal sounding boards for expressing his thoughts about these notions. In turn, they also provide Howard with a safe opening for giving life to his beliefs, a sheltered starting point for exploring how he wishes to actively employ them in manifesting his reality going forward.

This principle is reflected in the partners’ relationships with the actors, too. Whit, Claire and Simon are each wrestling with their own issues, and their respective interactions with Amy, Raffi and Brigitte enable them to explore their challenges on their levels. Just as Howard manifested the sounding boards he needed, the partners have done the same, even if they weren’t aware they were doing so at the time they were hired. But then, considering their individual circumstances, who better to deal with a broken heart than love? Who better to address a biological chronometer than time? And who better to reconcile our response to a potentially fatal disease than death?

Some have seen this film’s exploration of the foregoing principles as preposterous, absurd and implausible. But, given the standpoint from which its central narrative springs, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s spot-on when it comes to its examination of conscious creation concepts, and it does so quite elegantly and succinctly. In light of that, in my view, the issue here doesn’t lie with the movie but with those who are criticizing it; maybe they’re having trouble appreciating what the picture has to say because, like Howard and his partners, they, too, are mired in their intractable beliefs about how reality works and unable to envision alternate possibilities. It would indeed be wonderful if they could muster the courage, vision and imagination to open up their perspectives just a bit to see what’s on offer here, to genuinely appreciate the collateral beauty of “Collateral Beauty.”

Admittedly, this offering is somewhat manipulative and more than occasionally sappy, yet it effectively redeems itself with its heartfelt earnestness, clever premise and stellar ensemble cast. To be sure, the writing could have been crisper (especially in the first 30 minutes), the sentimentality could have been turned down a few notches and a stronger lead would have made a better casting choice, yet the film also provides viewers with ample thoughtfulness about how to view life’s big issues.

Given the Christmas backdrop for this story, I’d like to hope that it could eventually become a new holiday classic in the tradition of enchanting and heartwarming pictures like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “A Christmas Carol” (1951) and “The Blind Side” (2009), though it may take some time for the impact of this film’s message and meaning to sink in and become appreciated. In an age of rampant smugness and cynicism (and even more smug and cynical film critics), it’s refreshing to see a movie come along that doesn’t apologize for its own forthright emotionalism or its willingness to rely on a little out-of-the-box magic to make its point. (Remember, no one liked Frank Capra’s Christmas fable when it was originally released either.)

Life’s tragedies can surely knock us down. The question is, do we stay down once we’re there? Do we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by despair over the loss of a loved one, or do we choose to bask in the glow of having had the opportunity to share part of our lives with someone we so adored? It all comes down to what we choose to believe and where we decide to place our focus. We can lament the collateral damage that befalls us, or we can rejoice in the collateral beauty we were so privileged to experience. The choice is ours, and, in the end, that’s the essence of the wonder of existence.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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