[Meta: Collateral Beauty, David Frankel, Will Smith, Naomie Harris, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Allan Loeb]
“Collateral Beauty” asks us to believe that three intelligent, well-meaning businesspeople would hire three actors to portray philosophical concepts in order to trick their emotionally broken boss into appearing unsound so that they could sell the firm without his consent and save everybody’s future.
It’s a trite, gooey, preposterous movie and likely the year’s largest waste of acting talent.
Directed by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and written by Allan Loeb (“21”), the dramedy aims to be a holiday-season uplift film with an otherworldly component, like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Carol.” It also presents itself as a serious grief drama. It fails big-time on both fronts.
Will Smith plays Howard, a formerly successful and dynamic Manhattan ad-agency chief who lost a child to cancer two years ago and cannot overcome his sadness. He rides his bike into oncoming traffic. He mails letters addressed to Death, Love, and Time in which he seeks explanations. At the office, he makes and topples domino constructions all day.
His mental state has destroyed the company, and to save his skin, and their own, top associates Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) decide to sell the firm.
Because Howard won’t cooperate, they must make him appear incompetent so the sale can proceed.
So they hire three actors, played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore, to personify Death, Love and Time, respectively. The actors, in costume (Knightley’s Love dresses in valentine red), approach Howard, make him believe they’ve received his letters, and try to pep-talk him into living again.
When he becomes angry, he is captured on videotape, looking insane.
The actors also help the three business associates address their own problems — Whit has a young daughter who hates him, Claire has biological-clock issues, Simon has one of those ominous movie coughs — and demonstrate enough insight to hint that something cosmic indeed may be happening.
It’s a ludicrous story, and the filmmakers, despite a grade-A cast, deliver neither the Capra spark nor a credible depiction of grief. (For the latter, see the far superior “Manchester by the Sea.”)
Every character is severely underdeveloped, and a mere plot device.
Smith, whose movie-star charisma is forced out of the picture after the opening scene, is called on to look miserable through most of the movie.
Winslet and Norton look constantly worried.
Naomie Harris, playing a pivotal grief counselor, is the only one who comes close to displaying genuine feeling.
And Mirren, playing Death as an elderly wise woman in a blue boa, is the only one apparently having fun — a sorely needed quality. Sometimes, though, we feel merely sad for her. “This isn’t Noel Coward, it’s Chekhov!” Mirren exclaims of the hired-actor trio’s charade. Huh?
Harris and Mirren try, unsuccessfully, to explain the movie’s terrible title in separate passages containing ridiculous twists. Were there statuettes awarded for dreadful plot twists, the Harris moment, in particular, seems a sure-fire winner.
A sappy ending seals the movie’s status as one to avoid.
Starring Will Smith, Naomie Harris, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren
Written by Allan Loeb
Directed by David Frankel
Running time 1 hour, 37 minutes