Saturday, December 23, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Collateral Beauty" (2016)

Scene from Collateral Beauty
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Collateral Beauty (2016)
Directed By: David Frankel
Written By: Alan Loeb
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 97 minutes
Summary: Retreating from life after a tragedy, a man questions the universe by writing to Love, Time and Death. Receiving unexpected answers, he begins to see how these things interlock and how even loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.

The Movie

There was a time not too long ago that the name Will Smith conjured up the Oscar race dark horse. With two nominations to his credit, the actor had gained acclaim for his work in Concussion, a sports drama that explored CTC injuries. Many believed that he was snubbed for the role. It was only fuel for the uprising complaint of Oscars So White: the conflict regarding every acting nominee being Caucasian. This trend lasted two years and put The Academy at jeopardy at relevancy. Speaking as Concussion had put Smith back on the map, there was a strong chance that maybe he would be getting back into the Oscars conversation shortly after. 

Never mind that Concussion was following on the backs of After Earth and Winter's Tale: two films that remain largely panned. The need for a comeback was strong, and Concussion had brought the first signs of his return to the prestigious glory days of Ali and Pursuit of Happyness. During late 2016, it looked like he had found a balance between his big blockbusters with Suicide Squad and Collateral Beauty. In September, the film looked to be the high concept melodrama that would sweep the Oscar season. The supporting cast featured the likes of Oscar-nominated talent Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, and Keira Knightley. How could a film with that much credibility be bad?

In theory, the plot was easy to market: a man loses his wife and is confronted by spirits. It's a hard thing to screw up, especially since Charles Dickens had solidified the general formula a few centuries prior. The first trailer looked a bit convoluted, but it was the saving grace for the Oscars So White controversy. Birth of a Nation had proven a controversial failure, and Smith had enough clout to offset this problem. Suicide Squad may have been a critically panned movie, but its box office success pitted this as his perfect comeback, akin to Jennifer Lawrence in 2012 with The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook. Smith would publicly say that the movie helped him say goodbye to his father. The cards were all at play, and this story with a "profound" twist could be the next big sensation.  That is, if it was any good.

The Campaign

In theory, the film was a success, making $88 million on a $40 million budget. However, things were looking bleak at the start. On Rotten Tomatoes, it had obtained a 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The reviews weren't kind, and it created the ultimate hurdle for a film that was being pushed as the Oscar contender. It was a bomb that people who saw Winter's Tale recognized. It wasn't just a bad movie. It was a bad movie with a twist so profound that it gained a cult following that believed that you had to see it to believe it. The idea of a Smith prestige picture being a big deal had become nonexistent. With exception to Focus and Concussion, Smith hadn't released an above average film in years, and Collateral Beauty proved to be a death knell to any potential comeback. He may be getting Suicide Squad money, but he was killing himself from being taken seriously for Oscars.

The debate raged on about the film's quality based on its plots' ethics. The central twist involved people manipulating Smith's vulnerable emotional state through hackneyed methods. Many would argue that even that didn't make sense. But was it mean spirited in a way that kept the film from being so bad it was good? It was a "schoolyard assault" on Smith. Many called it an evil film. It was a moment when his career was in crisis, with many wondering if he would ever pick another good project ever again. People were talking about his movie, but not for the reasons that he had intended. It embodied an Oscar bait project that played too heavily on emotions, and not in a way that was at all successful. The conversation was shifting yet again. By the first week of Collateral Beauty, the only thing certain was that Smith wasn't solving the Oscars So White debate. All he would do was create a running joke with the inexplicable nature of the title. What was a collateral beauty? The world may never know.

In true form of artists whose work is being maligned, Smith responded nonchalantly that he didn't care about getting Oscars. He claimed that he was more interested in how the audience responded to the movies. With that said, he didn't dismiss them entirely, claiming that “It’s always fun to be invited to the party, but that’s all it can be.” What started with a trailer defined by its Oscar bait nature was now being shrugged off, becoming the lore of podcasts like The Flop House and We Hate Movies that tore into the film's problematic elements. It was mythic in its awfulness, and it didn't care that it took Smith's career down with it. Concussion had good will behind it, but it wasn't enough to keep him in the public's good graces. The Oscars So White debate would have to be solved by some other person.

The Payoff

As expected, Collateral Beauty ended up with zero Oscar nominations on nomination day. Smith would be the first to suggest that he was expecting that. However, there was some odd payoff in that his other film - Suicide Squad - would receive a Best Hair and Make-Up nomination (of which it later won). Smith wasn't entirely left out of the conversation, but he wasn't the focal point. In fact, Collateral Beauty failed to receive any real nominations for the film, earning one Razzie nomination for Worst Screen Combo, and a Best Actor nomination for the Image Awards. Despite all of this, he publicly decided to boycott the Oscars deciding that he had no interest in the ceremony. In contrast, Chris Rock decided to skewer this moment at the ceremony when he hosted by suggesting that Smith wasn't invited anyways. 

The jury is still out as to whether Smith will ever return to the Oscars circle. Many believe that films like Moonlight, Lion, and Hidden Figures helped to solve the Oscars So White controversy in an effectively diverse year. Smith was becoming irrelevant in his old age, and he has done little since to suggest that his status as a great actor shouldn't be tested. He currently is scheduled to star in the Disney live action remake of Aladdin and a Bad Boys sequel. They're not terrible projects in theory, but not likely to get Smith into the Oscar race. 

However, there is one reason to remember Collateral Beauty in this week's Failed Oscar Campaigns. This past Friday marked the release of his latest film Bright, which has become notoriously panned by critics, with Indiewire calling it the "Worst movie of 2017." This has upset director David Ayer, who has gone off on critics. Screenwriter Max Landis has also fell victim to petty fights with dissenting voices. Smith meanwhile has claimed that his breakout role on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was some of his worst acting. Unfortunately, the talk about whether or not Smith is a good actor is currently bogged down in endless attacks against his current work. I for one really liked Focus, but feel that his magic is fading due to bad project picks. Bright is probably going to end up being one of the worst films of his career, which is saying a lot. The only thing that's certain is that, unless Smith and Ayer release another December movie, I probably won't be covering it in a Failed Oscar Campaigns column. 

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