BEING BAD IS ALL ABOUT HOW HARD YOU TRY
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Will Smith as Howard and Helen Mirren as Brigitte in ‘Collateral Beauty’
I can’t say whether I’m a glass half-full or a half-empty kind of person because from my perspective, I’m usually just glad to have a glass. When it comes to critical, year-end evaluations, I’m far more inclined to focus on the best efforts. I believe we tend to learn more, about craft and ourselves via reflection on the meaningful, superlative moments. The best films and performances give us all something to aspire to, but why can’t something similar happen in those rare moments when, as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe reminded us, things fall apart?
It’s all about intentionality. We’ve been told that good intentions pave the way down, and think about it—no one starts out with the aim to make a bad film, right? Films begin with good ideas and fevered dreams. They come to life thanks to a spark of creativity, immeasurable collective hard work, a bit of luck. But sometimes, they fail when they try too hard and collapse under the weight.
The year of 2016 contained two separate and quite distinct instances of failure, rooted in good-to-great intentionality and a decided over-compensation in the effort department. And what proves to be most fascinating, to me, is that they highlight dueling industry imperatives.
In the case of director David Frankel’s Oscar-bait project, “Collateral Beauty,” there is a naked attempt to not only tug at the heartstrings of audiences—with two-time Academy Award nominee Will Smith starring as a highly successful husband and father who spirals downward in the face of epic tragedy—but also to put on a bit of the razzle-dazzle with a star-studded cast featuring three-time Academy Award nominee Edward Norton, two-time Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley, Golden Globe nominee Naomie Harris, and Oscar-winners Kate Winslet (Best Actress for “The Reader”) and Helen Mirren (Best Actress for “The Queen”). The only thing missing from the film’s awards season pitch is the tagline, “And now a word from our sponsor—The Academy Awards.”
The problem with this all-too-obvious approach is that the film burdens itself with undue pressure. You can’t merely have this all-star team just show up each day and preen about in front of the cameras. They have to do the heavy lifting, which everyone does here. Each and every performer makes a show of her “acting,” alerting us to the effort, rather than going for a more naturalistic angle.
Of course, beyond the heavy-handed performance power plays, there is the fatal miscue embedded in screenwriter Allan Loeb’s narrative. We are led to believe that Smith’s character begins writing to Love, Time, and Death, seeking answers to alleviate his pain, and that these universal ideals take human form, in order to respond to him. Yet, as part of the plot machinations, it is revealed that a trio of actors has been commissioned to assume those roles. What trips things up here is the fact that the film can’t quite make up its mind as to whether it wants to maintain the metaphoric ideal or the literal explanation. The filmmakers needed to decide on one approach or fully embrace the ambiguity, and it is quite apparent that Frankel and Loeb were uncomfortable in this state of narrative limbo.
There is no such confusion in the second failure I want to spotlight from 2016. With “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Zack Snyder ascribes to the belief that you need to go big or don’t even worry about showing up. His DC Comics blockbuster is a big murky mess. I would argue that it’s quite proud of itself, too.
Comic book adaptations have become the go-to narrative trend of the last half-decade or more, with socially relevant nods (Bryan Singer’s work on the early “X-Men” franchise) and decisions to create more nuanced anti-heroes (vicious killing machines like Wolverine in the “X-Men” and the brooding caped crusader in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy). Without a doubt, Snyder sought to emulate this model with his take on the Batman/Superman mythos. And why not, when you can pit the quintessential human hero against the god-like alien?
But did it need to be such a literal dark slog?
Beyond misguided motivations (I’m not sure why Batman succumbs to the Trumpian fears of Superman as an illegal immigrant, but then switches over once he realizes that their mothers have the same first name), “Batman v Superman” is a poorly shot and executed affair, a CGI slugfest meant to lay the foundation for an expanding universe of stories featuring an endless parade of superheroes and supervillains.
It is supposedly always darkest before the dawn, but what happens if there is no new day on the horizon? Better luck next time.