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Film / Collateral Beauty

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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:

  • 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.
  • Deconstruction: To the usual story involving a corporate takeover where the decent boss who cares about more than money is undermined by his trusted employees. It's made clear that the firm's buyers (who never try to force the deal) will allow Howard and Whit to retain creative control and that they won't fire all of the employees who have no better alternative, while if Howard continue to ignore things then everyone will lose everything.
  • 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 reveals 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.
  • Grief-Induced Split: After losing their six-year-old to a rare cancer, Howard and his wife separated so that they could process their grief.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: It's said that Whit and the others have tried interventions and all kinds of other stuff to get Howard to do something to keep the company going, but have been completely ignored.
  • 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 Howard trying to recover from 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Amy Moore a.k.a. "Love" or A. Moore, as in amor which is Spanish for "love".
  • 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.
  • Mood Whiplash: A sad scene of Whit's daughter making it clear that's she hates him is lightened a bit when, with a straight, stony face, she calls him a philanthropist instead of a philanderer and he hesitantly corrects her, to which she replies “Well, you would know.”
  • My Biological Clock Is Ticking: Claire repeatedly looks at donor insemination websites while worrying she's too old and Howard notes she's worked with the firm for most of the window she could have used to have a family instead.
  • 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: A movie emphasizing emotion and loss released near the end of the season.
  • 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.
  • Rousing Speech: The film begins with Howard giving one at a business meeting, before his loss.
  • 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 even they themselves admit that it's still pretty morally questionable. When Howard finds what they've done he freely forgives them.