Directed by David Frankel. Starring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Ann Dowd, Kylie Rogers. (2016, PG-13, 97 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 16, 2016
Come expecting a good cry from this mawkish holiday slush and you’ll leave disappointed. (I, at least, departed dry-eyed.) So manufactured and preposterous is the sentiment in Collateral Beauty that you’re more likely to shake your head in disbelief than in any effort to jerk back tears.
It doesn’t help that the story’s protagonist, Howard (Smith), is an impassive lump, an advertising guru whose grief over the death of his 6-year-old daughter two years earlier has left him shell-shocked. He goes to work daily (furiously riding his bicycle against the traffic) but once there, is disengaged and zombielike. In his office, Howard erects elaborate structures with thousands of plastic building blocks, only to knock them down weekly like strings of dominoes. (Oh, the futility of effort!) At night in his spartan apartment, he pens hate letters to Death, Time, and Love. It pains Howard’s colleagues (Norton, Winslet, and Peña) to see him like this, but it also frustrates them because his lack of involvement is putting their company (of which he owns 60% of the voting shares) at grave risk. So a plan is concocted, yet the scheme is so nutty that it would need a director with a much more screwball touch than David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) to pull it off. Three struggling actors (Mirren, Knightley, and Latimore) are hired to personify Death, Time, and Love, and accost Howard in public places in a plan ultimately configured to make him appear mentally unsound. Of course, all three of Howard’s colleagues also have issues of their own, which will have the added bonus of being assuaged as a result of their chicanery.
Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Maryse Alberti, Collateral Beauty contains almost no shot without a Christmas tree or holiday lights and decorations in the background. Even if the decor doesn’t make it evident, this is most definitely meant to be a Christmastime movie about redemption and regeneration, with hints of Jacob Marley’s ghost come round to shock Scrooge into acknowledging his past, present, and future. Inevitably, many viewers will contrast Collateral Beauty with Manchester by the Sea, this season’s other grief drama, and Collateral Beauty will crumble in the comparison. Where Manchester embraces subtlety and eschews easy resolutions, Beauty goes in for maudlin sentiments and happy endings (although not without a surprise twist). Will Smith’s charismatic presence as an actor is completely hemmed in by the anhedonic character he plays, and watching the great Helen Mirren putting a daffy spin on Death is downright depressing. Collateral Beauty is ultimately as mushy a movie as the phrase itself, whose definition is never fully explained by the script. It’s another example of something sounding good but meaning little.