David Frankel’s Collateral Beauty starts with a pretentious name and goes downhill from there. It’s a film dealing with weighty subjects in a manner that is borderline offensive and cheats the audience and its talented actors of quality. When you can’t get past an incredibly contrived concept, it makes any semblance of emotional resonance that the screenplay is trying to beat into you fail badly. And it does.
Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising exec who’s mourning the loss of his young daughter. He can’t get past the loss and he’s cut off communication with the world, including his coworkers. There’s three of them that are focused on and they’re all given their own soap opera subplots. Whit (Edward Norton) is a divorcee trying to reconnect with his own little girl. Claire (Kate Winslet) is the workaholic wanting to become a mother. Simon (Michael Pena) is terminally ill and trying to hide his diagnosis from everyone.
The trio make the tough decision to try to push Howard out of the company. In order to do so, the script invents quite a remarkably ridiculous way to do so. You see – Howard writes letters to issues he’s grappling with – Love, Death, Time. When his coworkers are at their wit’s end, they make the puzzling decision to hire an acting troupe to portray those emotions, catch Howard’s reaction to them on camera, and exploit his response for the company’s gain. It’s even more contrived than it sounds. So we have Helen Mirren as Death, Keira Knightley as Love, and Jacob Latimore as Time. Howard also reaches out to a grief counselor (Naomie Harris) who’s experienced similar life issues.
This is the type of picture that some may not want to criticize due to its subject matter. Yet Collateral Beauty deserves scorn, especially because so many other films have dealt with similar themes in far more mature and satisfying ways. There’s not a performance here worthy of praise and that’s remarkable considering the cast. Smith is stuck playing one note throughout and even Mirren (one of our finest actresses) is annoying. No actors could make this dialogue work to be fair. It’s as if screenwriter Allan Loeb took a bunch of sympathy and encouragement cards and self-help manuals, cut them up, threw them in the air, and let treacly word piles form. The result is ugly.
* (out of four)