PLOT A grieving man writes letters to Love, Time and Death, and gets an unexpected reply.
CAST Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren
RATED PG-13 (language and adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE An excellent cast, immersed in a hot tub of self-pity and false sentiment.
Meet Howard, the grieving hero of “Collateral Beauty.” He was once an impassioned advertising executive, but the death of a child has left him an isolated, unspeaking zombie. While the company he founded runs aground, Howard (Will Smith) sits in his New York apartment writing angry letters to three abstract concepts: Love, Time and Death.
Meet Howard’s friends and co-workers, Claire (Kate Winslet), Whit (Edward Norton) and Simon (Michael Peña), who love Howard deeply but worry about their plummeting share prices. So they concoct an elaborate plan to save the company: Convince Howard that Love, Time and Death appear to him as people. Then they can paint him as mentally unstable and strip him of power.
Believe it or not, this is what passes for a heartwarming story in David Frankel’s “Collateral Beauty,” a weepy drama that manages to be glossy, goopy and creepy all at once. Intended as a twinkling Christmastime fable, it’s actually a dark perversion of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that replaces divine intervention with corporate fraud, and small-town values with big-city ambition. Written by Allan Loeb, “Collateral Beauty” has such warped ideas about humans and their emotions that it borders on a kind of sociopathy.
It would be unwatchable were it not for the stellar cast, which includes Keira Knightley as Amy and an excellent Helen Mirren as Brigitte, two thespians who agree to masquerade as Love and Death, respectively. (Jacob Lattimore, as the teenager who will play Time, comes off as a Hollywood trope: the black ghetto kid who stuns us with his brilliance and sensitivity.) Naomie Harris is appealing as Madeleine, another bereft parent who tries to spark a romance with Howard, but Smith doesn’t give her much to work with. His character is resolutely sullen and self-pitying.
None of these characters feels real; each one is a teardrop waiting to be wrung from your duct. And given this film’s air of yuppie magic realism, it’s no surprise that some of them turn out to be angels, or fictions, or something equally vague. Fortunately, by then “Collateral Beauty” will have moved itself so deeply that you won’t need to feel anything at all.