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Will Smith is Howard, a successful advertising executive with a poet’s eloquence, who falls into a deep depression when his 6-year old daughter dies. He wanders his office like a ghost, silently building elaborate domino constructs then toppling them, The cascading collapse reflects the debris of his bereaved life. Get it? If not, don’t worry. director David Frankel has him repeat the action over and over with a hangdog expression until you grasp the insight. Howard then despondently rides his bike into oncoming traffic around Manhattan and posts bitter soul-bearing letters to what he sees as life’s interlocking constants: Time, Love and Death.
His concerned senior-executive team (Kate Winslet, Edward Norton and Michael Pena) find the letters and hire three actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore) to play the three abstractions and stalk and interact with him to get his delusions recorded. But wait, that’s not all folks, believe it or not, each team member is facing personal issues/dilemmas as well. (What are the odds?) Norton has a young daughter who hates him, Winslet has biological-clock issues, Pena has one of those ominous “movie coughs.” The oversimplified message seems to be that we’re all connected, which translates to heavy-handed mumbo jumbo. Meanwhile, Howard joins a therapy group led by Naomie Harris, who lost a daughter herself.
Collateral Beauty is pretentious and manipulative. It bludgeons viewers with its new-age philosophizing and its desire to be considered meaningful. Frankel uses a ham-fisted approach lacking any subtlety or sense of screwball humor. The narrative arc is so hard-to-swallow that even accepting a little magical realism doesn’t patch the holes. Seeing Will Smith opposite Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, and Edward Norton should be cause for excitement but it is frustrating that this impressive cast is squandered on far-fetched story developments and telegraphed pathos. I guess this movie is trying to say that grief can be beautiful and that there is collateral beauty in a child’s death from cancer, thereby provoking an emotional response. But the film is transparent, cynical and nakedly manipulative.
Anything good to say? Well, Collateral Beauty is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Maryse Alberti, It contains almost no shot without a Christmas tree or holiday lights and decorations in the background. It is obviously 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. The cast is eemplary but they are handcuffed with an uninspired script that barely scratches the surface. Mirren (who potrays “Death”) is the best of the three abtract concepts and Keira Knightly and Naomie Harris are very beautiful but Collateral Beauty is not reommended.
For an authentic portrayal of grief, watch the deeply touching, darkly funny, inspirational Manchester by the Sea and forget this glossy Hollywood-ized treatment ever happened.