Even if it hadn’t come along so soon after Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s symphonic drama about a father emotionally crippled by loss, Collateral Beauty would look like silly high-concept Hollywood grief porn. That’s not to say David Frankel’s all-star weepie doesn’t work on its own manipulative terms, spreading its trail of goopy sentiment and inspirational homilies with technical finesse and some decent acting against the picturesque backdrop of New York City during the holidays. Audiences unconcerned about their sugar levels might eat it up.
Allan Loeb’s original screenplay was initially set up with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon attached to direct, as a follow-up to his Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which shared some thematic elements with this film, albeit coming at them from different angles. Gomez-Rejon exited the project due to creative differences after original leads Hugh Jackman and Rooney Mara stepped away and Will Smith came on board. That might explain why the finished movie plays so concertedly like a Serious Acting Vehicle for Smith, who’s the least interesting component in a madly overqualified cast.
Smith plays Howard, an advertising wizard hailed at his Soho firm as the “resident poet-philosopher of product.” First seen giving a celebratory talk to his associates and employees to cap off the agency’s most successful year ever, Howard identifies the core question of his profession: “What is your why?” While he’s no Don Draper, he kind of explains what that adspeak might mean by pointing to Love, Time and Death as the three abstracts that connect every human on the planet. Howard even gets a little misty-eyed at his own marketing-guru genius. Ditto the staff of millennial hipsters and Howard’s partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena).
Cut to three years later and one not-so-subtle visual metaphor for total collapse — an elaborate, multi-lane domino structure toppled with the flick of a single tile. That image recurs with tireless insistence throughout the movie. It’s now two years since the death of Howard’s six-year-old daughter, and he has returned to work in body if not in spirit or mind. The other partners are in a jam, as major clients start bailing and investors lose faith. So as much as they care about their friend and colleague, they maneuver to have him declared incompetent.
The movie somehow dances around the pain-for-gain callousness of that scheme by showing Whit, Claire and Simon to be each trapped in his or her own unhappy situation, thus rendering them all ripe for epiphanies later on. Cynical Whit’s philandering killed his marriage and alienated his daughter (Kylie Rogers), who rolls her eyes and sneers, “I’ve already seen it,” when he tells her he got them Hamilton tickets for Christmas. Kind-hearted Claire has focused on her career and ignored her biological clock for so long she may have left motherhood too late. And Simon, the comic relief, is a proud new dad nursing a burdensome secret concerning his health. All of their plotlines are more absorbing than Howard’s.
Whit hires a private investigator (the great Ann Dowd, underused), who discovers that Howard sits at home alone with no phone or internet; goes nowhere aside from a Brooklyn dog park, despite having no dog; and gazes through a window at a therapy group for grieving parents run by Madeline (Naomie Harris), though he never ventures in. Howard also writes letters to — you’ve seen the trailer so you know — Love, Time and Death.
The pathos of the situation and the lush strings of Theodore Shapiro’s relentless score occasionally manage to get past the contrivances long enough to foster some emotional involvement. But Smith’s one-note performance — teary eyes, sad stubble, furrowed brow, graying temples — makes Howard more of an emoji for unimaginable loss than a character we come to care much about.
That makes it a relief when Whit has the brain-wave of hiring three struggling actors, Amy (Keira Knightley), Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and Brigitte (Helen Mirren), to impersonate Love, Time and Death, respectively. (They don’t have the funding to put on a play they’re developing, though the hole-in-the-wall theater where they rehearse seems to have a lighting budget most Broadway theaters would die for.) The plan is for them to deliver personal responses to the letters of the increasingly bewildered Howard and jolt him out of his depressed stupor, hopefully prompting him to sell his share of the company.
It’s a ludicrous plot device, right out of Gaslight, as Brigitte observes, but at least it gives the film some fresh spark as Frankel plays the three actors’ initial encounters with Howard for funny-sad comedy. The mood then darkens as Love, Time and Death each make a second appearance, causing him to erupt into soliloquies of rage about the empty platitudes meant to comfort him.
Drawn against her better judgment into the charade, Amy (as Love) responds in earnest to Howard’s hashtag-friendly question from the start of the movie, shouting, “I am the only why!” Faux-profound statements like that one, unfortunately, are about as illuminating as it gets. That means the anger in these scenes is all surface, no depth, largely because the script continues merely to display bereavement rather than explore it in more challenging ways. The explanation of the movie’s title is just another example of how it substitutes trite greeting-card wisdom for psychological insight.
The ensuing developments become predictable, as Howard is revealed to be far more intuitive than he appears, and naturally, personal breakthroughs of several shades occur. To Loeb’s credit, he refrains from tying everything up too neatly, and his overdetermined screenplay does keep a semi-surprising reveal or two up its sleeve. Audiences who enjoy smiling through tears, and don’t mind having their buttons pushed in the most obvious ways, could probably do a lot worse.
Shot in glossy widescreen by Maryse Alberti, the movie makes great use of New York locations, covering a variety of neighborhoods and capturing the city’s iconic features without resorting to postcard images. And the deluxe cast is certainly watchable. Latimore makes an especially punchy impression, and Harris, coming off her wrenching work in Moonlight, radiates warmth and sorrow, her mellow character acquiring more dimension as the story progresses. The unsinkable Mirren keeps a twinkle in her eye as Brigitte rises to the thespian challenge while establishing a tender connection with Simon. But even she seems unconvinced when she declares: “This isn’t Noel Coward! It’s Chekhov!”
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production companies: Anonymous Content, Overbrook Entertainment, Palmstar Media, Likely Story
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd, Mary Beth Peil, Kylie Rogers, Liza Colon-Zayas, Natalie Gold
Director: David Frankel
Screenwriter: Allan Loeb
Producers: Bard Dorros, Michael Sugar, Allan Loeb, Anthony Bregman, Kevin Frakes
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Michael Disco, Steven Mnuchin, Michael Bederman, Ankur Rungta, Peter Cron, Steven Pearl, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Editor: Andrew Marcus
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes