COLLATERAL BEAUTYNOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Tyler
The film opens with Howard (Will Smith), Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) at a company meeting with all of their employees to discuss the great year they've had. They all work for an Ad Agency, and Howard gets up to explain to everyone the three abstractions in life: Love, Time, and Death. Specifically, "We long for love," "We wish we had more time," and "We fear death." He correlates this with how people spend their money throughout their life, citing them as motivators for their ad campaigns.
The movie then cuts to 3 years later with Howard at the office in front of a miniature city of dominos. He starts the chain of dominos and then leaves the office for the day. It's clear that something is different. As he leaves, Whit, Claire, and Simon are talking about the status of the company. They note that Howard has become increasingly distant and mentally removed from the company over the past couple of years. Due to this, they are losing many of their large accounts, as Howard was the reason those accounts were even with them. Whit brings up the very real possibility of another company taking over and letting them all go, but also mentions that they have one last shot to get another corporation to buy their stock at $17 per share. The only problem is that Howard owns 60% of the shares and refuses to sell. It is then revealed that it's been two years since Howard lost his young daughter and he's never been the same since she passed.
Whit and Claire take a walk through the city and discuss the company’s situation, as well as Howard’s. It’s revealed that, although Howard and Whit are equal partners, Howard bought some shares from Whit so that he could use the money for his divorce expenses. Through the conversation, Claire also mentions that she’s been looking around for sperm donors in order to have a child
Cut to Howard going through the rest of his daily routine. He goes home and sits alone in his apartment. Claire comes to bring him some food, but he won't answer the door. The landlord says that not only does Howard never eat the food she brings, but he's also late on his rent again. Claire offers to pay his rent for the month and leaves the food with the landlord. Howard doesn't own a phone, a home computer, or any other modern form of communication. He also doesn't own a car, so he rides his bike as transportation. Periodically, he'll ride in the middle of the street against traffic at night, hoping someone will hit him.
Back at the office, Whit is talking with an employee about their various campaigns when they pass a line of people waiting to audition for their latest commercial about a cruise line. The tagline Whit has come up with for the commercial is “Find your life, shed your skin.” As he gets to the end of the line of candidates, the last one is a woman (Keira Knightley) who re-phrases the tagline to “Shed your skin, find your life,” noting that it’s more sentimental and hits you in the heart. Whit has the commercial director change the line to the new version and goes to thank the woman, only to see that she’s leaving hurriedly out the door. He follows her through the city to a small theater, where she joins an older woman, Brigitte (Hellen Mirren) and a younger boy, Raffi (Jacob Latimore). They’re practicing lines for a play that they’ve been working on. Whit stumbles in on them and says that he loves theater and, if the woman will consider joining their commercial, he will finance their play. Brigitte is delighted by this news. Before he leaves, Whit asks for the woman’s name, and she says her name is Amy.
After leaving the theater, Whit gets an idea. He meets with Simon and Claire at Simon’s house. He tells them of his idea to have Howard secretly followed by a private investigator (the same one that his ex-wife hired to catch him cheating) to see if they can prove that Howard isn’t in the proper mental state to run his share of the company. Whit leaves to go pick up his daughter so that they can spend Christmas together, but when he meets with her, she says that she hates him for breaking her mother’s heart and refuses to spend Christmas with him or ever see him again. Whit understands and leaves, but is devastated.
Whit, Claire, and Simon all meet with the private investigator to discuss her findings on Howard. She says he sticks to a strict routine: Once he leaves work, he goes to a dog park where he sits for hours, then he returns to his apartment and doesn’t leave. However, there has been one deviation in his routine. He’s been writing letters, but not to people. Howard has been writing letters to Love, Time, and Death. She was able to illegally retrieve the letters and gives them to the three before leaving.
We go back to Howard, who is taking a walk around a neighborhood when he stops at a place and looks inside the window. Inside, there is a group of people sitting in a circle and talking. Howard lingers for a minute before leaving and continuing his walk.
Back at the office, Whit remembers a technique he learned from his Uber driver that he uses to talk to his mother (who is implied to have Alzheimer’s) where he talks on her level, rather than trying to force her to see reality. He tells Claire and Simon that he wants to hire actors to play the parts of “Love,” “Time,” and “Death” in order for them to confront Howard, all while the private investigator films his reactions toward them. Then, using editing software, they’ll just digitally remove the actors from the footage and make it seem like Howard isn’t mentally fit to run his portion of the company shares. Claire is morally torn by this but decides to go through with it for the company’s (and their employees’) sake. The 3 of them meet with the actors from before: Brigitte, Raffi, and Amy. They discuss the terms of the arrangement and how they plan to do it. Brigitte and Raffi decide that the 3 of them want $20,000 each, which Simon scoffs at. Whit and Claire agree to the payment terms but want to know how they’ll do it. Brigitte says that since she’s the oldest, she’ll play Death, while Raffi will play Time and Amy will play Love. They decide to play the parts as if they have the power to control which people can see them.
To further discuss how to play their parts, Brigitte talks with Simon, Raffi talks with Claire, and Amy talks with Whit. All of them meet individually at separate locations. Simon is distant and doesn’t seem to want to discuss anything with Brigitte. Claire is still feeling torn about the whole plan, coupled with feeling down about not having a child of her own, and tells Raffi not to antagonize Howard, but to confront him in a constructive way. Amy and Whit discuss what she will say to Howard and the concept of love, all while Whit relentlessly hits on Amy. He says to tell Howard that he can’t run from her (Love) and to not try to live without her.
The next day, Brigitte (as Death) meets Howard while he is sitting on a bench at the dog park that he goes to every day. She tells him that dogs can understand the concepts of death and mourning. Howard, confused, just nods in agreement. Brigitte continues, introducing herself as Death, saying she received his letter (holding it up in front of him) and said Howard called her a “paper tiger.” Howard, now thoroughly disturbed, tries to walk away, but Brigitte follows and says that he wrote about making a trade, but she didn’t want to make that trade. As she says this, a little boy walks by them and says “who is he talking to mommy?” and the mother (the private investigator) says that sometimes people are weird. Brigitte tells him only people she chooses can see her, but not to worry because she only came to answer his letter in person. Howard is visibly disturbed by all of this and tells her to leave him alone as he walks away.
Brigitte meets with Simon and says that she knows that Howard believed her. She could see it in his eyes. She’s enthusiastic about this “role” she’s played and lavishes the thought of Howard believing her to be Death. Suddenly, Simon starts violently coughing, and she asks if he’s okay. Simon answers that he’s not okay.
The next day, Whit gets in the elevator at the office with Howard and offers him his season seat for the basketball game and also pitches him the $17 per share offer he received from OmniCorp, both of which Howard silently shoots down. Once Howard reaches his section of the office where he keeps his dominos, he meets Raffi (as Time). Howard is again confused and says he must be lost, but Raffi confronts him about his letter to Time. He says Howard wrote that time is deceptive because while it creates the opportunity for happiness, it also eventually destroys all the beauty in the world. Raffi continues and says that he (Time) is a gift and that he’s wasting it by not moving on with his life or enjoying the time he had with his daughter. Before he leaves, Raffi knocks over some of the dominos that Howard had set up, which panics Howard. Even more confused than before, Howard is left to continue his routine.
Later, while eating at a restaurant, Howard is confronted by Amy (as Love). She begins to recite the speech that Whit gave her about how Howard shouldn’t try to live without her and that he can’t run from Love forever, but she starts to cry, and he leaves. She meets back with the group and feels that she failed. Everyone thinks they should try again, but Amy refuses to participate anymore, feeling horrible for manipulating Howard.
Howard once again goes to the place where the meeting is being held with everyone sitting in a circle. He finally goes inside, and it’s revealed that this place is a therapy discussion group led by a woman named Madeleine (Naomi Harris), who lost a child of her own. When Howard introduces himself to the group and sits down, Madeleine tries to coax him into talking about his daughter, but he tenses up and attempts to leave, only for Madeleine to say that he doesn’t have to say anything, but hopes he will stay. Howard sits back down and stays until the group time is over. When Madeleine is packing up to leave, she asks him why he finally chose to come to the group. She’s seen him outside before and has been tempted to invite him inside, but he always left before she could do so. They agree that it must be the holiday season that got him (and others) to come to the group. She tells him about her daughter. Her name was Olivia, and she died from a rare form of cancer at six years old. They talk about how parents often separate when they lose a child, and she shows Howard a note that was given to her by her husband that says “if only we could be strangers again.” She tells him that her husband got his wish.
The scene cuts to Brigitte talking again with Simon, this time at a market. She’s still enjoying the thought of Howard believing her to be Death, but Simon is not in the mood to be around her. She then asks why he said that he wasn’t okay before. Simon doesn’t give much information, but Brigitte guesses that he is dying. Simon reveals that he has multiple myeloma and has fought it twice before at the ages of 16 and 25. This time, however, it’s come back and is untreatable. Brigitte asks if he has told his wife yet, but Simon says that he doesn’t want to put that kind of pain on his wife, especially since their son was born recently.
Whit tracks down Amy at another acting session and desperately tries to convince her to come back and keep playing the part of Love in their plan, as well as go on a date with him. She’s not enticed at all by his promises, even rejecting $100,000 in payment to come back. She suddenly asks him how he felt the day his daughter was born. He says that he was scared, but when the doctor handed her to him, he felt the most intense sensation pass through him. He says that he felt as if he was love in that moment. She tells him that if he puts all of his effort and tenacity into loving his daughter, then she will come back to the plan. He agrees.
Howard meets with Madeleine for dinner after another group session, and she tells him about the hours before her daughter died. She said her mother-in-law was hysterical, so her husband was calming her down outside. She said she was sitting next to an old woman who turned and asked her who she was here for. She replied that it was for her daughter and that she was dying. She said the old woman told her to not miss the “collateral beauty” in her daughter’s death. She never understood it at the time because of the pain but feels that she now gets what the old woman was trying to say. Howard, however, thinks this is nonsense and that there’s nothing beautiful about that. Howard then tells her that he’s been having conversations with “Love,” “Time,” and “Death.” Madeleine says that he should answer them if they ever come back.
The next day, Howard is on the subway when he’s again confronted by Brigitte (as Death). She asks why he is so angry with her. Before she can continue, Howard begins a tirade about how he’s heard all of the clichés like “death is a natural part of life” or that “God saw the prettiest rose on Earth and wanted it all for himself.” None of these things matter because “she’s not here holding my fucking hand”. He then storms off the subway at the next stop.
As Howard is riding his bike down the street, Raffi (as Time) catches up to him on his skateboard and tries to continue the conversation from their previous encounter. Howard then slams on the brakes, which makes Raffi fly over the bike and land on the ground. Howard then yells that he doesn’t care about what he has to say because Time took his daughter away from him. He gets back on his bike and rides away.
Next, as he’s walking down the street, he’s confronted by Amy (as Love) who is much more composed than their last encounter. He patronizes her and says he knows exactly what she’s going to say, but she surprises him by interjecting that she (Love) is in everything from life to death, from laughter to sorrow. She says that he’s been running from Love and can’t see that he would have never had his daughter without her. He leaves, pained by this thought.
At the office, Howard meets with Whit, Claire, and Simon (along with a company lawyer) to discuss the state of the company and their plan to undermine his mental status due to his grief and seize his portion of the shares. Howard, in a surprisingly clear realm of thought, talks to each of them at the table. To Simon, he says that he knows of his illness because he knows his background and that as long as Howard is alive, he’ll make sure Simon’s family is taken care of. To Claire, he says that he’s proud of being her mentor and how far she’s come, but to not give up on other areas of life like having a child. To Whit, he says that he is the best friend he has ever had and that he’s disappointed not because of this, but because of how he’s not trying to get his daughter back. He says that Whit has the most amazing thing in the world in his daughter and that he doesn’t need permission from her to be her father. After this, he signs over his shares to the company, but also requests and signs another piece of paper that he knew the lawyer had with him. Howard then leaves. Claire asks the lawyer what that second paper was, and the lawyer says that, years ago, Howard put a portion of the company’s shares into a trust for his daughter and the paper he just signed was a legal document acknowledging that she was no longer alive.
The scene switches to Simon, who is throwing up in the bathroom due to his illness. His wife knocks on the door and asks if he’s okay. He comes out and finally admits that he’s not okay. They’re scared, but they embrace each other, knowing they’ll be able to get through this together somehow. Next, Claire is seen in her home scrolling through pages of a website on her computer. The site is for choosing sperm donors, but she gives up and closes the computer. Lastly, we see Whit outside of his daughter’s private school. When she comes outside, he comes up to her despite her saying again that she doesn’t want to talk to him. He says that he loves her and that he’s gonna come to her school every single day until she talks to him. She reluctantly accepts his decision to do so, but as she walks away, she turns and says that tomorrow is a half-day for her school so he should come early, trying to hide a smile. Whit smiles in return and says he’ll be there.
Later, Simon meets with Brigitte to give her the payment for her acting services. He tells her that he finally told his wife and that she knew he was sick, but they’re going to get their affairs in order soon. Brigitte tells him to not fear death, his own or anyone’s else’s and walks away.
The scene cuts to Howard knocking on the door of Madeleine’s house. Howard asks if she has plans tonight (it’s Christmas Eve) and she says that she doesn’t and he asks if he can ruin that by spending the evening with her. She invites him in, and he looks around at the pictures hung on the walls that were drawn by her daughter. She says that she was just watching an old video of her daughter playing with her husband and asks if Howard would like to see it. Howard declines and Madeleine explains her daughter’s situation and death like she did earlier in the film. Howard starts to tear up and Madeleine again takes out the note she got from her husband, revealing that Howard is her husband and they split up after their daughter’s death. Howard looks over to see the video of him and his daughter playing together outside and also with dominos (like Howard’s daily routine). The scene flashes back to Madeleine crying in the hospital chair outside of her daughter’s room and the old woman next to her is revealed to be Brigitte, who in reality is the entity “Death”. She tells her not to miss out on the collateral beauty. Howard finally brings himself to say his daughter’s name (Olivia) and illness out loud as he hugs his wife and they both cry, finally coming to terms with his daughter’s death.
We then see Claire meeting with Raffi in his neighborhood to give him his portion of the payment, and he tells her that she’s going to be a good mother someday. She says that she’s given up on becoming a mother, but he tells her that being a parent doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has to have a biological child and that he grew up not knowing his biological parents, but those who were close to him acted as parental figures to guide him. He tells that it’s never too late and that she has plenty of time, subtly revealing himself to be the entity of “Time.” She says that she thought time wasn’t linear, as he had mentioned before, but he notes that was just “bullshit and acting” before he walks away.
The last scene is Howard and Madeleine holding hands as they walk through the park. They walk under a small bridge and then the camera pans up to Amy, Raffi, and Brigitte (Love, Time, and Death) standing on top of it. When Madeleine turns around to see what he’s looking at, they’re not there. The scene then pans out to a full view of the park.
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