My wife and I go to the movies so much it sometimes becomes hard to keep track. Action, westerns, drama and of course comedies come and go. Movies provide a sense of escape where the audience can forget the cares of their daily lives and be transported into a gripping story. About a week and a half ago, we dropped in for the next installment of a Will Smith flick and were totally shocked.
Without much fanfare, I grabbed the tickets and began a journey told through the creative lens of director David Frankel about a talented New York City ad man who, after suffering the loss of his six-year-old daughter, spirals into a depression. Before the tragedy, Howard, a charismatic and upbeat leader, shares during a staff motivational moment that love, time, and death connect every human being on earth. He said:
We long for love, we wish we had more time and we fear death.
People who care surround Smith’s character but he is unable and unwilling to let them in. This depression soon becomes a liability when his firm’s partner and longtime friend becomes worried his state will have fiduciary results. In a final effort, three friends Claire, Whit, and Simon hire a private investigator along with who they believe to be, random theater actors to help jar him back to reality. This is where it gets tricky.
Smith’s character has been therapeutically writing letters to entities he feels slighted by for his daughter’s death. He pens letters to Death, Love, and Time. His desire is to get the grief out of his system but he finds out that is easier said than done. The movie goes to a dark place that only those who have suffered from depression can identify with. Howard is sick, and like millions who have the illness, he rejects most attempts to help him.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that sadness is something we all experience. It is a normal reaction to difficult times in life and usually passes with a little time. However, when a person has depression, it interferes with daily life and normal functioning. It can cause pain for both the person with depression and those who care about him or her. Doctors call this condition “depressive disorder,” or “clinical depression.” It is a real illness. It is not a sign of a person’s weakness or a character flaw. You cannot “snap out of” clinical depression. Most people who experience severe depression need treatment to get better.
In the movie, Whit, a senior partner with Howard, develops a plan to safeguard the well-being of their company. He decides if they cannot help Howard out of his funk, they could at least guarantee they will remain profitable with a merger. To do so, they will need to prove that Howard is not sane enough to navigate the future of the company. His “friends” hire three actors to help the process move forward.
“Collateral Beauty” explores how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty. What can the trinity of “hired” actors teach us about our own lives? Let us look at them:
Death: The first entity to pay Howard a visit is Death. Turns out Death is an older white woman with an accent. In his letter, he calls her a bully that can only lord over others through intimidation. Which sounds like an accurate assessment, right? If you want to shift the energy in the room, ask someone if they are prepared to die. Death has a looming presence that lives in the back of all of our minds. Funny that in the height of our endeavors, death still commands a response. Howard was unable to accept that Death paid his daughter a visit. Like millions of us, he wrestled with understanding the meaning. But, what if it was never about finding meaning, but finding resolve. Moving from a place of demanding answers to embracing the reality. Death can take on new meaning when we engage each day in a life of purpose. As Oscar Wilde wrote in the “Canterville Ghost”
Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.
Time: Coming off as an embittered young black guy, Time interrupts Howard at the office in a tirade. Ready to defend his function, Time informs Howard that it is he, not Time, which has squandered his most precious of gifts. Howard said Time ruins lives and robs us all of beauty. Eternalism is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally real, as opposed to the presentist idea that only the present is real, and the growing block universe theory of time in which past and present are real while the future is not. However, the truth is, Howard was seeing it all wrong. Time has nothing to do with beauty, relationships, or happiness. What would happen if we viewed time as a guidepost instead of a road map? Time can serve as a reminder to leave nothing to chance or tomorrow. Grab every bit of life you can right now and maximize it all.
Love: Back in 1993, Haddaway posed the question to us all, “What Is Love?” But long before they penned it, poets, philosophers, theologians, and writers have grappled with understanding the mysteries of love. Is it better, as Alfred Lord Tennyson shared, to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Could we possibly avoid a life of heartache by simply side-stepping this frantic emotion? Howard’s encounter with Love felt more like an apology. Love’s character approached Howard hoping to assist him in finding closure and let him know she was not the cause of his pain. Howard snaps and accuses Love of a sadistic game all while she exclaims that she is present in both joy and pain. She is right there, right now speaking to him through the shards of broken dreams to keep living and loving. That is a lesson to us all on how we decide to view our tragedies. We can waste time lamenting and the blame game or we can wipe the tears away and make the boldest declaration of all times:
I will not stop loving no matter how bad it hurts.
Some critics have already written off “Collateral Beauty” as one of Smith’s bonafide flops, but as someone who has fought back the demons of depression, I found it refreshing. Trauma and grief are common colors in the palette of our lives. We have been wounded, suffered loss and struggled to make sense of it all. Millions of men and women are presently dealing with grief in all its stages.
Watching Howard and particularly his close friends try to get through things was a reminder that when we suffer from depression, our relationships suffer as well. Though there are tons of books and studies out there on the subject, there still is no perfect manual on treatment. Life hurts at times. And often it is the unlikely presence of random people who can make a difference. When we left the cinema, for a brief couple of hours, it felt like I had not been in a crowded movie theater, but in a therapist’s office learning how to find collateral beauty in chaos.
Review by Early Jackson
(Edited by Cherese Jackson)
IMDb: Collateral Beauty (2016)
Top Image Courtesy of New Direction Coaching Associates
Inline Image Courtesy of Gage Skidmore – Wikimedia License
Featured Image Courtesy of RED ROMERO RAMOS – Flickr License