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Would You Rather: ‘Collateral Beauty’ or ‘Passengers’?

Pitting the holiday season’s weirdest wannabe blockbusters against each other

(New Line Cinema/Columbia Pictures)
(New Line Cinema/Columbia Pictures)

Last week I saw two of the most messed-up flicks of 2016, the Will Smith tearjerker Collateral Beauty and the epic sci-fi Chris Pratt–Jennifer Lawrence romance Passengers (out Wednesday). The films aren’t Juno-level quirky; they are so deeply strange they made me question whether human beings wrote, produced, and released them. (Collateral Beauty, which made only $7 million over the weekend, is the worst wide opening of Will Smith’s career.) But which is this season’s less repulsive freak show? I’ve pitted them against each other to find out.

(Spoilers throughout this piece, because I cannot talk about these movies without getting into their insane plots.)

Which one has the most accurate depiction of its setting?

In Passengers, which is about Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence waking up stranded on an intergalactic long-haul corporate space liner, Chris Pratt’s space suit gets a HOLE IN IT, but somehow he is able to survive, which suggests a very inaccurate depiction of the life-sucking vacuum of deep space. However, in Collateral Beauty, a tearjerker starring Will Smith, a character insists that Brooklyn rent costs $600.

Winner: Passengers

Which one features the most realistic depiction of exercise?

In Collateral Beauty, a bereaved wealthy man rides a bike from Manhattan to Brooklyn repeatedly during the winter; in reality, it would be Uber VIP or bust. However, in Passengers, Jennifer Lawrence wears a fashion-forward but highly impractical white transparent fishnet one-piece bathing suit to swim laps. This has never happened in any galaxy.

Winner: Collateral Beauty

Which one has better games?

In Collateral Beauty, Will Smith’s character spends all his time playing depression dominoes, stacking elaborate configurations and knocking them down in despair. In Passengers, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence play a sick 3D version of Dance Dance Revolution.

Winner: Passengers

Which one has a more compellingly strange plot?

In both cases, the particulars of the plot are … beyond bizarre. In Passengers (again, spoilers, though IMO what is already rotten cannot be spoiled), Pratt’s character, Jim, is an mechanic immigrating to a new planet, and as we have established, he is jolted out of his space hibernation due to a malfunction. In his sadness, Jim develops an obsession with one of the hibernating passengers, a journalist pornily named Aurora Lane (Lawrence), who is temporarily emigrating to the new country so that she can write about it. Jim decides he wants to wake her up to be his life partner. He knows that doing so would be evil, a death sentence, a kidnapping — and he gets drunk and wakes her up anyways. Then he pretends it was an accident. Having literally no other romantic options and acting under the assumption that fate brought them together, Aurora falls in love with the man who took her life away from her.

While this was all going on, I marveled at the film: I was amazed that it was promoting itself as a love story when it was, in fact, a dark psycho-sexual thriller about a woman tricked into a love affair with her keeper. Then the final act goes down and it’s played as a sweet romance. Passengers can get bent! The end.

Collateral Beauty’s plot is more obviously convoluted, though it also hinges on a twisted moral betrayal. What I’m about to describe is the actual plot of this movie and not me having a stroke:

Howard (Will Smith) is a successful ad exec who has fallen into a fugue state following the death of his 6-year-old daughter. After two years where all he does is grunt and stack dominoes, Howard’s business partners (Ed Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Peña) want to sell their now-flailing business — but Howard won’t hear of it, and he has the controlling vote. The trio decides that their best course of action is to convince the board that Howard is mentally incapacitated. Also, Howard had been attempting to deal with his grief by writing letters addressed to the abstract concepts of Love, Death, and Time (sure), and the partners pay a detective to break into a mailbox and steal the letters. Next, the trio decides the best, most logical way to demonstrate that their depressed friend Howard is crazy is to hire three actors to portray the abstract concepts of Love, Death, and Time, and to have these actors follow Howard around and talk to him until he freaks out. Not just as a prank — it’s so the partners can record his reactions, digitally remove the actors, and present his freak-outs to the board as though he is raving to himself.

The actors are played by Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, and (the possibly blackmailed?) Dame Helen Mirren. There’s a subplot involving Howard wooing his grief counselor (Naomie Harris) who turns out to be his ex-wife, a twist that makes as much sense as it sounds. Like Passengers, everything works out in the end … except, uhhh, Michael Peña’s character has cancer and is assumed dead. Nobody ever tells Howard that the hallucinations he had were actually actors hired by his once-best friends to rob him of his business.

Which one though?

The discrepancy between the romantic tone and the disturbing kidnapping plot in Passengers is just slightly more upsetting than the discrepancy between the treacly, cloying tone and the gas-lighting and corporate fraud in Collateral Beauty. But only a plot summary of Collateral Beauty contains the following sentence: The trio decides the best, most logical way to demonstrate that Howard is crazy is to hire three actors to portray the abstract concepts of Love, Death, and Time, and to have these actors follow Howard around and talk to him so they can record his reaction and digitally remove the actors and present his freak-outs to the board as though he is raving to himself.

Winner: Collateral Beauty

How many times do the characters say the title of the movie in the movie?

They say “collateral beauty” five times in Collateral Beauty, and to be honest, I didn’t count how many times they said “passengers” in Passengers, but it was at least twice.

Winner: Tie because I don’t remember

Which one is a better love story?

Collateral Beauty is, in fact, a much better love story, as it tells the tale of a man deranged by grief reconciling with his ex-wife, while Passengers tells the tale of a woman falling in love with her deranged kidnapper.

Winner: Collateral Beauty

Which one is less emotionally manipulative?

Tough question! Considering Collateral Beauty is a weepie about a dad grieving for his dead daughter, in almost any other contest it would lose. But Passengers asks its audience to root for the most toxic onscreen romance since Twilight. (The vampire was a damn pedophile!)

Winner: Collateral Beauty

Final Thoughts

Collateral Beauty is demented and Passengers is demonic, but the more bearable of the two freak shows is Collateral Beauty, by a small lead. Which is good news, because it’s the one that doesn’t cheerlead the despicable Stockholm Syndrome romance between a woman and her captor.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Collateral Beauty as Collateral Damage.