Collateral Beauty

frame_0000_largeToday’s script comes to us from an established screenwriter, who decided to take a break from the rigors of studio work to produce an original spec. I have wanted to review it for a long time… mostly because of all the hype which accompanied its multi-million dollar sale. Is the script the screenwriting equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes, or is it an Original spec?

Before we begin the review, I have to say something about this script’s opening:

AN OLD FIGHT FILM

Grainy… being projected onto a white wall… Caesars

Palace… 1982… 14th round… no volume…

Mancini tags Duk Koo Kim with a right. Kim reels back,

Mancini misses a left but then connects with a very hard

right. Kim flies into the ropes then down to the canvas.

In our modern age of a septillion and one entertainment choices, it would be unusual enough for this to happen that one might almost believe I am making it up but… my eight year old self WATCHED this fight with my father. I saw [AND WILL NEVER FORGET] Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini hit Kim with that fatal right punch.

I remember how the violence linked with the celebration [and then turned to dread] in our living room. It was an awakening for me. It was not the first time my child’s mind had to process grownup information, but it was a spectacular lifting of the veil nonetheless. This world these adults inhabited was full of nonsense and fear and the possibility of death.

My eight-year-old mind wanted no part of it.

Mr. Loeb is a handful of years older than I, but it seems possible that he is including this fight in this screenplay because he saw it too– because it impacted his twelve-year-old psyche as much as it impacted my eight-year-old psyche.

Regardless of the truth value of our sharing the same experience, I can’t disguise how much aesthetic weight I give to THE POSSIBILITY of its truth. There is something supra-modern in our culture’s ability to produce individuals who can say:

I remember where I was when…

I go on about this because it seems to me that these divisions we impose on Art [read Art as a catchall for anything intellectual humans try to do] are unnecessary.  I wonder if modern and post-modern aren’t simply describing the speed of information transmission in a particular cultural epoch. It is no miracle to me that postmodernism becomes an aesthetic division in Art in remarkable coincidence with the invention of the television.

If I imagine that Loeb and I were two of the million or so people who watched [in real time] the fateful blow delivered by Mancini, and if I further imagine that the rate at which Culture’s produce Artists is equal to the rate at which it produces other Mental Disorders [2%] (1), then there are 20,000 Collateral Beauty’s waiting to be written. My Collateral Beauty would have different “plot points” than Loeb’s, but the message would be the same:

The unpredictability of life is as painful as it is beautiful.

What Collateral Beauty wants to capture [we’ll see how successfully when we answer the questions] is the naïve worldview that believes natural evil should only attach to the wicked. It should be true that: if you are good, only good things happen to you.

Mancini’s right hand was not wicked. The fatal nature of the punch was an accident of physics, NOT divine judgment. My eight-year-old mind leapt away from the result of Mancini’s punch because it taught me that the simplicity of my beliefs would not be supported by my experience.  Sometimes bad things happen to good people. It showed me for the first time that:

Reason is useless as a processing tool for ethical phenomena.

We want ethical casuality to behave nicely the way physical causality does. If I drop the cup, the cup falls to the floor and breaks. Event A [dropping the cup] causes Event B [the cup falls to the floor and breaks]. Reason demands that ethics work this way too. If I am kind and you are not, then when the tornado comes, it will knock down your house and leave mine alone. Statements that have this form are what our causality obsessed brains desire from our world. I believe [almost fundamentally] that it is A CREDIT to our species that we crave ethical causality so desperately.

Collateral Beauty is Mr. Loeb’s attempt to rationalize that which cannot be rationalized. Ethics is not [yet] subject to causality. Every human realizes this at some point; it is part of “growing up”. The knowledge that the world will never be AT LEAST as good as we think we should be [ourselves] makes us sad.

It makes us nostalgic for that time in our development when the veil was still in place.

I imagine this digression will matter more when we get to question 2, but the opening personally resonated with me so much that I could not begin the review without disclosing it.

Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) There is no denying that we are given a lot of exposition in the dialogue. Opening voice-overs, executives asking questions about our hero, Howard Inlet, that maybe they should already know the answer to if they were really interested in buying his company.

We are told how sad Howard is, and this gets backed up by the elaborate domino patterns and the Stuyvesant Dog Park trances, but none of this was connecting me to Howard’s pain. By page 5 I know that Howard lost his daughter, and I know this made him depressed. However, I only know it because the script told me so.

I feel the same way about our other main characters. Whit is the philandering playboy who wants to be loved for real. Claire is the woman who has put her career before everything else and now regrets she has no family to care for. Perhaps Simon is the most well done because he hides a secret illness from everyone in his world, in order to protect them from his journey toward death.

Inevitably, these things we need to know about these characters is just told to us.  I’ll cite only one example, from page 14, to prove my point:

WHIT

I did something.

She looks at him.

CLAIRE

You have something on your face.

She wets her finger and rubs it off.

CLAIRE (CONT’D)

You’re like a six-year-old.

WHIT

And you’re like a mother… I mean

one who has no children.

She immediately stops… that stung. And he repeats what he

said before…

WHIT (CONT’D)

I did something, Claire. I hired

someone.

In this exchange, Whit calls out Claire for acting like a childless mother, and Claire calls out Whit for mistaking sex for love. The exposition is blatant. It is typical of the rest.

6 out of 10 points.

Part B) I don’t think the subtext in this script is very deep either. The main problem, as I see it, is that Collateral Beauty personifies the abstract nouns Love, Time, and Death, and then puts words into the mouths of these personifications that don’t inspire the mind in the way they should. Don’t get me wrong, this is Hard Work. I’m just thinking that if Literal Time we’re talking to me, she’d be about 99% more insightful than this from page 58:

HOWARD (CONT’D)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that. In

Slaughter House Five he defined

time as “bugs trapped in amber.”

And now she’s frozen…

HOWARD (CONT’D)

Who are you?

BAILEY (TIME)

You know exactly who I am… what I

am.

And he takes another step… almost threatening…

HOWARD

You’re lying.

BAILEY (TIME)

Maybe I said that to him… to

Vonnegut. Maybe he wrote it down.

(with a shrug)

Maybe it sold books.

He registers that…

HOWARD

So I wasn’t that far off by calling

you petrified wood?

She smiles. Because she saved it. And because this is a

conversation now…

BAILEY (TIME)

No. I don’t suppose you were.

(and then)

Why did you write me?

The words from Vonnegut are good words. The “petrified wood” from Loeb via Howard is no more than fair but… Literal Time [personified by It’s a Wonderful Life Bailey] are a half step from poor.

Maybe it sold books.

In the context of this fictional conversation, I’m not sure that even makes sense.

My point is: The Christmas Carol Metaphor which underpins this story is not supported by the characters written to play those metaphors. If you are going to give me a character that Is Death, then that character better be Outstanding. I’m not sure the personifications attributed to Love, Time, and Death in Collateral Beauty are even adequate regular characters.

5 out of 10 points.

Part C) It’s easy to see that I was disappointed by this read. Why anyone would want to pay two million dollars for the rights to it is beyond my comprehension. The characters are shallow cardboard cutouts, the emotions they experience are insincere… and all the fault lies in the dialogue. It’s not horrible; it’s just not good enough for this metaphorical story.  I suppose, however, the characters are properly individuated. I know who they are [even if only because of all the exposition]. If I were to take off a lot of points here, it would be based on the exposition and the lack of subtext—the ingredients that comprise good individuation.

Basically, the script is not horribly written, and I have already [and will continue] to penalize it for its more glaring faults. As far as individuation is concerned [as a thing separate from exposition and subtext] this script won’t teach you anything, but you would know its characters without their cues.

8 out of 10 points.

  1. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

I believe, had I read this without the two-million-dollar context, I wouldn’t have made it past page 5. I thought Loeb’s painting of Howard’s depression as a Domino obsession was trite. [It was put to better effect in the Children’s movie Robots.] I found the exposition grating. And I thought there was clunkiness in the initial structuring. I had to reread a few pages to sort out who in the hell was who.

On top of all this, we don’t even begin to get to the Real Premise [hiring “actors” to play metaphors] until that conversation cited above between Claire and Whit. If this were an unheralded Black List script that barely had any votes, I would have quit before page 5.

10 out of 20 points.

  1. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) Before we discuss reveals, let me warn anyone that hasn’t read this yet [and wants to] you will want to skip to the next question as this one will be rife with spoilers.

So, about those two twists… I would love to know if anyone out there buys either one of them? My interpretation has it that all four of our main characters:

Harold

Whit

Claire

Simon

Are fortunate enough to have Love, Time, and Death instantiate themselves in their lives to help each one of them through their moment of crisis.

I found it to be a massive cheat.

The lines cited above from Bailey/Time show why. The little parentheticals inserted into their action lines are written with ZERO ambiguity. These are the parentheticals of actual humans:

She smiles. Because she saved it. And because this is a

conversation now…

We are fooled by these parentheticals. The parentheticals are cheats, so the twist is a cheat. I hate being cheated (2). Of course, Mr. Loeb is not an amateur, he knows some critic like me is going to have a sharpened sickle ready for all these weeds, so he includes this ON THE FIRST PAGE to cover himself:

This is a fable…

… remember those?

I do remember those, but I don’t think they allow you to turn a twist into a cheat and expect me to give you two million dollars for it.

The second twist is a little better, but is still based in a language trick. It concerns Howard’s stalking of a support group for parents whose children have died. He first visits the Rec Center that houses the group on page 36. He continues to visit throughout the rest of the script, each time getting a little closer to the woman who runs it, Madeline.

Of course, we don’t find out until pages 105-106 that:

MADELINE (CONT’D)

What was your daughter’s name,

Howard?

HOWARD

Please don’t do this…

105.

CONTINUED:

(CONTINUED)

And now we see it in her hands… the card her husband sent

her. And as she hands it to him…

MADELINE

If only we could be strangers

again…

(and again…)

What was your daughter’s name,

Howard?

He shakes his head…

HOWARD

I can’t.

She moves to the table, picks up the remote control and goes

back to him.

MADELINE

Howard…

As she hits play on the remote… we don’t see it… but we

now hear a father and daughter singing Lionel Richie’s “All

Night Long.”

MADELINE (CONT’D)

… say her name.

And now for the first time since we’ve known Howard Inlet…

HOWARD

Prudence.

Madeline who runs the support group Howard stalks is really… Howard’s estranged wife.

Sigh.

It’s not TERRIBLE, but it isn’t in the script either. You read back through it to try and find the subtext that shows how much these two have been through together, and you can’t find it. Yes, it is mildly strange that Madeline puts up with his stalking, but that is THE ONLY CLUE to their shared history. In my opinion, a second cheat.

4 out of 10 points.

collateral-beautyPart B) The engine that drives Howard is making peace with his daughter’s death. When I thought Howard was imaging Love, Time, and Death as a coping mechanism, I also thought the engine was strong. When it turned out that he wasn’t imagining them, I thought the script was just confused about what the word fable means:

2 out of 5 points.

Part C) I define the pinch point as arriving on page 79:

WHIT

So we have to prove Howard’s crazy

by Thursday.

This is when Whit, Simon, and Claire decide to have their “spirits” visit Howard one more time to catch him in the act of being crazy. You can see how structurally confused the script is because, normally, it is the protagonist who utters the pinch point. Even though Howard is the center of this story, he causes nothing to happen. Does this mean Whit, Simon, and Claire [as a unit] are the protagonist? Does the “fable” want all four as the protagonist? Or, is the script just confused? I choose the last option:

1 out of 5 points.

Part D) The introduction to this essay was lengthy considering how much I ended up disliking the script as a whole. The inclusion of the Mancini fight really got to me. It was something that I had been meaning to write about for a long time. So, although I don’t feel the script was well-executed, I admire the sentiment that it was trying to capture. That sentiment would also qualify as our theme. Earlier I identified it as:

The unpredictability of life is as beautiful as it is painful.

Mr. Loeb tries to quantify this belief with the words used in his title. We are meant to believe that the world is full of… Collateral Beauty. From page 70:

MADELINE (CONT’D)

And she looked at me and said…

“Just be sure to notice the

collateral beauty.” I mean she

said it so casually.

(beat)

In the next room, my six-year-old

daughter was being taken off life

sup– and this woman says…

collateral beauty.

Page 71:

MADELINE (CONT’D)

About a year later something

started to happen to me. I would

be walking or on the subway or

whatever and I would just burst

into tears. Now, random crying

jags by a woman who recently lost a

child aren’t unexpected… but this

was different. These weren’t

Prudence tears.

(beat)

No, these were tears born from

something else. From this kind of

profound connection… to

everything. And I realized… it

was the collateral beauty.

And finally, from page 80:

MADELINE

You need to talk to them, Howard.

He looks down to notice that they’re walking arm in arm. As

he looks back up to her…

HOWARD

It’s not collateral beauty.

If I am being critical [and when am I not?], this is profoundly vague. I believe Mr. Loeb is making [without realizing] the “best possible world” defense to the age-old “argument from evil”.  Leibniz was the first to suggest that the combinatorial complexity of so many lives and thoughts is beyond our finite ability to comprehend. He further suggested that this combinatorial complexity is not beyond the ability of an infinite being to comprehend. All definitions of God assume she is an infinite being. Therefore we humans should trust that God has made the LEAST evil world possible. In other words, God could rescue Howard’s Prudence from the cancer which will strike her down, but IF SHE DID, the world would be MORE evil than it would be if She lets Prudence die.

I have always hated this theodicy. In other writings I have suggested that God, in all her infinity, should be subject to An Infinite Hippocratic Oath. There should be exactly two requirements for holding the office of God:

1 First Do No Harm.

2 If you can’t satisfy (1) Do Nothing Else.

So, I am not going to sympathize with Mr. Loeb’s Collateral Beauty. It may be an acceptable coping mechanism for humans dealing with loss on this planet, but it is not an acceptable defense against the argument from evil.

5 out of 10 points.

  1. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) This story is unique, that is why it sold for two million dollars. I feel confident suggesting that it is meant as a loose adaptation of A Christmas Carol, while also suggesting that this adaptation moved in a new direction. It reminds me of a lesser writer’s Eternal Sunshine. Still, I respect the author for leveraging his Hollywood status for a story which is decidedly Not Hollywood:

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) I can’t, however, be as generous with the writing and the story design. The characters are cut-outs and the twists are cheats. The overall quality of the writing is better than average but, so what? I expect that from someone who has spent as much time honing his craft as Mr. Loeb. In brief, you won’t learn how to write a great screenplay from reading Collateral Beauty:

2 out of 5 points.

  1. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

As I described in the answer to Part D to question 4, this script’s answer to one of the most significant problems we humans ever face, does not have the weight of truth—to me. On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that the script sought an answer. My feeling that this answer is unsupported by the plot points in the story [or the plot points in actual lives] is legitimate. However, the script is not insincere; it believes what it says. If others take comfort in it [and they must have since it sold for two million dollars], who am I to judge?

7 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 55

1 The reason why I think being an Artist qualifies one for a “mental disorder” is a subject for a different essay.

2 If I have interpreted wrong, I welcome correction. I believe, however, my interpretation is correct. If it is, then the twist is a cheat.

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One response to “Collateral Beauty

  1. Nice! Was hoping you’d do a review of this one. Enjoyed the read — I like the point you brought up about if the manifestations of Love, Death, and Time were actually just figments of his imagination, but things get deflated when you find out they’re actually real.

    I feel like this script was bought primarily on the concept (not just Man talks to Love, Death, Time but also these things being real actors put in place to manipulate someone’s life, which on paper I’ll admit is intriguing) as well as the character’s being very individualized and easy to decipher. Those two things alone probably set the script apart from 99% of other scripts, and by then the additional 1% to cross was probably a non-factor.

    Anyway, really enjoyed this review. Glad you’re still posting. Hope you had a great new year and here’s to a better 2017!

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