Collateral Beauty is a 2016 film about a man who, after losing his young daughter, writes grief-stricken letters to Death, Love, and Time, only to be surprised when they show up to answer the letters in person.
Howard Inlet (Will Smith) is a successful advertising executive who lost his six-year-old daughter to a rare form of cancer. Two-and-a-half years after her death, Howard is still completely disconnected from his life and business, and the firm is on the brink of bankruptcy because it has lost his clients. Howard's partner Whit (Edward Norton) has come up with a buyer for the company, but Howard refuses to discuss anything with him, spending all his time in the office building elaborate domino displays. Whit enlists employees Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) in an attempt to save the sale by hiring a trio of actors Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley), and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to portray the concepts of Death, Love, and Time to speak to Howard and help him come out of his depression. However, secrets are revealed and nothing is as it seems...
The film was subject to a marketing campaign that depicted the film as a spiritual drama, while the final product tells the audience clearly from the get-go that the concepts are actually actors who were hired by Howard's friends in an attempt to get him the help he needs. Or is that what's really going on?
This film provides examples of:
- Adult Fear: Howard is a deeply broken man after losing his child, and finds himself drifting away from his job and co-workers, and clearly contemplating suicide.
- Anthropomorphic Personification: The three actors are hired to play the personifications of Death, Time, and Love to help Howard through his grief. The ending reveals that they really were Death, Time, and Love, and were only pretending to be actors for the benefit of Howard's co-workers.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Madeleine, the therapist at the support group Howard visits, who attempts to help him deal with his depression. The ending reveals that she's actually Howard's ex-wife, who is following his request of acting as if they are strangers.
- Driven to Suicide: At one point, Howard rides his bike directly into traffic, clearly almost hoping one of the oncoming cars will hit him.
- Everybody Knew Already: Simon's attempts to hide his illness were not as successful as he thought. When he finally tells his wife he is dying, she tells him she already knew. Even the totally-disconnected-from-life Howard tells him that he knew that Simon was dying, and he promises to help his family.
- Foreshadowing: Madeleine tells Howard early on that she lost her daughter as well when he starts visiting the support group. The end of the film reveals that Madeleine is Howard's ex-wife, the child she was lost was theirs, and that they've been separated for years in order to process their grief.
- Gaslighting: Three actors are hired to act as Death, Time, and Love. The twist is that Howard clearly isn't coping with his grief before the gaslighting begins. His co-workers are only trying to "document" how bad he is already. Then in The Un-Twist, the ending reveals that the actors really were Death, Love, and Time, and were helping Howard's co-workers through their own issues as well.
- It's Lampshaded by Brigette, who is then disgusted when no one else knows what "Gaslighting" means.
- Heel Realization: When finally confronted directly, Howard readily admits that his inability to cope with his grief has destroyed his company and forced the sale. He immediately forgives his co-workers for hiring the private investigator to follow him and reassures them that selling the firm is the right thing to do.
- The same scene rams home that the aforementioned friends all realize their actions were dishonest and repugnant. Claire especially seems on the verge of telling Howard that the whole thing was them when he starts forgiving them for having him taped.
- Heroic BSoD:
- The central plot is basically Howard trying to recover form the grief caused by the death of his daughter.
- Madeline also makes it clear she had a shutdown, but she has since recovered and is running a therapy group to help others recover.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Simon has a really bad coughing fit. When Brigitte asks him if he's okay, he coughs out "No." From this Brigitte is able to figure out that Simon is seriously ill, despite his attempts to hide it.
- The Insomniac: Howard says that he gets about 4 hours of sleep a week. He knows this is a problem but can't seem to do anything about it.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Of a sort, Howard's co-workers really do want to help him, despite their somewhat questionable method, but Love, Time and Death end up helping each of them through their own issues as well.
- Maybe Ever After: Howard and Madeleine (former husband and wife) are walking hand-in-hand through central park at the end of the film.
- Meta Twist: A quite bizarre case, as the twist is that the movie is exactly what the trailers told you it would be, rather than a case of "Never Trust A Trailer."
- Mind Screw:
- The letters written to Love, Time and Death confuse Howard's friends. It takes some interaction with the actors to decide what Howard meant by them.
- The ending. The actors playing Death, Love and Time apparently really are Death, Love, and Time, and they were helping Howard's co-workers as much as they were helping him.
- Never Trust a Trailer: The trailers treats Love, Time and Death as the real deal, while the film makes it clear they are actually actors being paid to mess with Howard. However the ending shows that trailer was accurate: Death, Time and Love really are supernatural figures, just pretending to be actors in order to help Howard's co-workers as well.
- Oscar Bait
- The Reveal:
- The reveal that the woman who helped Madeline at the hospital was Brigette, aka Death.
- Additionally, when Howard sees the three actors standing on a bridge at the end, it's clear that Madeline can't see them - indicating they really are supernatural in nature.
- Real After All: Even though they're just actors, Death, Love, and Time manage to help Howard's co-workers with their death, love, and time-related problems. And the ending shows that the "actors" are really supernatural in nature.
- Sanity Slippage: Whit, Claire and Simon's plan involves having an investigator film Howard as he talks to "Death, Love and Time", digitally removing the actors from the footage, and thereby making it seem like Howard is going crazy. The twist is that Howard really is having real trouble coping with his grief.
- Secret Test of Character: The ending. Death, Love and Time are not just helping Howard, but his co-workers as well, and try to teach them a valuable lesson about each of their flaws. Love convinces Whit to reconcile with his daughter, Time convinces Claire that she's not too old to have children, and Death tells Simon that he has to reveal his illness to his friends and family.
- Title Drop: The term "collateral beauty" comes up six times during conversations.
- With Friends Like These...: Howard's co-workers hire a private investigator and a group of actors in a deliberate attempt to show that he's lost his mind. They do sincerely want to help him, and they haven't been able to find any other way to get him to engage so the sale can go forward, but it's still pretty morally questionable. When Howard finds what they've done he freely forgives them.
- Xanatos Gambit: Hoo boy. Death, Love and Time really are who they say they are, and were just pretending to be actors in order to help Howard's co-workers as well.
- Your Cheating Heart: Whit's problems with his daughter are because he cheated on his wife. To his credit, Whit fully acknowledges this was all his fault.