Collateral Beauty is a movie that insists grief can be beautiful. In the service of this extraordinarily bland, empty message, it takes the subject most likely to provoke an emotional response—the death of a child—and treats it cheaply, employing pseudobabble, chicken-soup-for-the-soul platitudes, and naked manipulation to tug at its audience’s heartstrings. It’s transparently cynical, with no apparent endgame in mind other than simple profit.
That it’s able to waste such a fleet of capable actors and such elegant cinematography in the process is its main achievement. In the movie’s opening scene, Howard (Will Smith) is an ad executive feted as a Steve Jobs-ish “resident poet-philosopher of product,” who insists to his team in an excruciating kind of internal TED Talk that advertising is in no way about selling things. It’s about improving people’s lives. The three fundamentals, he explains, are love, time, and death, which people crave, want more of, and fear, respectively.
Three years later, Howard has descended into a catatonic state of grief after the death of his daughter. He’s returned to work only to spend his time building increasingly complex structures out of dominoes (what this repetitive action is a metaphor for is nebulous at best). His three partners in the firm, hoping to sell it and cash out on their shares but impeded by the fact that he’s the major shareholder, come up with a plan to have him rendered mentally incapacitated. First, they have him tailed by a private detective (Ann Dowd, wasted in this role). Then, when they find out he’s writing impassioned letters to Love, Time, and Death that he drops into a mailbox, they hire three actors to play those roles, accosting Howard in public places in the hope that they’ll provoke a response that will prove he’s out of his mind.
The remarkable cruelty of this plan is noted only by one of the partners, Claire (Kate Winslet), while the others (Edward Norton and Michael Peña) don’t seem particularly concerned about gaslighting their best friend and former mentor while he’s still coming to terms with the worst experience of his life. Death (Helen Mirren) harasses Howard on a park bench. Time (Jacob Latimore) visits him at the office. Love (Keira Knightley) interrupts his meal at a diner. Dowd’s private detective films all the increasingly aggressive confrontations for legal purposes. In the meantime, Howard visits a grief counseling group led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), where he tries to accept the fact that his daughter is really gone.
Collateral Beauty was directed by David Frankel, who helmed the similarly treacly Marley and Me, not to mention One Chance, a dramatized retelling of the rise of Paul Potts, the 2007 winner of the reality show Britain’s Got Talent. Written by Allan Loeb (Just Go With It), it was originally going to be directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) starring Hugh Jackman and Rooney Mara, but Gomez-Rejon left the project after Smith was cast, citing creative differences.
That likely explains why the movie is so tonally inconsistent: Smith gives a performance that implies he’s fishing for serious-actor trophies, while Norton, Winslet, Mirren, and Knightley seem like they’re in a quirky, Birdman-esque comedy about death. Brigitte, Mirren’s gloriously loopy actress, raves about the notes of Grotowski and Stella Adler in her own performance as Death, while Norton is so casually awful in a Silicon Valley way (he notes at one point how ungrateful Howard was about the ayahuasca shaman he shipped over from Peru) that it’s hard to believe he’s taking things totally seriously.
That’s not to say that Smith is bad, simply that he seems to think he’s in a different movie. In Howard’s silent scenes his physicality is tense, with his features set into a semi-permanent grimace; when his character has something to say, he’s quietly understated in communicating the depths of his grief. The plot to have him undermined professionally by his three closest friends, though, is as manipulative and ill-conceived as the movie’s attempts to wring profundity from its ludicrous philosophizing. Its message that time is abundant comes through in the glacial pace of its one hour 36 minute running time, but its Hallmark wisdom about the collateral beauty to be found in the kindness of strangers (or something) remains elusive, even as Howard’s path feels inevitable. That actors this gifted (Winslet and Mirren particularly) can’t disguise what a confused, contemptuous product they’re in isn’t on them; rather, it’s a tragedy something this hollow was made in the first place.