By HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features Film Critic
Losing a loved one is hard, but dealing with the loss of a child is unbearable. While one would think that premise alone would be enough to move moviegoers to tears, Academy Award-winning director David Frankel’s (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”) new drama “Collateral Beauty” piles on several additional, unnecessary emotional subplots to try to ensure there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Once a successful New York advertising executive, Howard (Will Smith) is a shadow of his former self after losing his 6-year-old daughter to cancer. He spends his days intricately setting up dominoes in his office, only to knock them down and set them back up again, and his nights at home alone, staring at the wall—that is, when he’s not riding his bicycle into oncoming traffic.
If that wasn’t heart-wrenching enough, Howard’s reclusive nature has begun to affect his relationship with his clients and jeopardize the future of his once thriving company—which, like most things in life, he now couldn’t care less about. So, his coworkers and so-called friends Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) do what any heartless people would do in their situation: they hire a private investigator to try to prove that Howard isn’t in the right frame of mind to run the company anymore so that they can sell it for $17 a share.
When the PI (Ann Dowd, “Masters of Sex”) discovers Howard’s been writing letters to Love, Time and Death seeking answers from the universe about why his daughter had to die, Whit, Claire and Simon decide to hire three actors to play Love, Time and Death (Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Helen Mirren, respectively) to not only try to show Howard that life is still worth living, but also to record his exchanges with them. That way they can edit the actors out of the video so it looks like Howard’s talking to himself and present the footage to the board to finally have him voted off.
And therein lies the main problem with “Collateral Beauty.” Instead of writing a moving, spiritual film that deals with a subject that should easily resonate with viewers (unless you have a heart of stone, who can’t sympathize with a parent losing their child?), screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Rock of Ages,” “Here Comes the Boom”) writes a story that makes the bulk of its characters seem very selfish and unlikeable. Sure, there are some sappy, underdeveloped subplots that are supposed to make viewers sympathize with Howard’s coworkers—divorced dad Whit is trying to win back his estranged daughter (Kylie Rogers, “Miracles from Heaven”); workaholic Claire is desperate to start a family of her own, but fearful that she’s waited too long to do so; and cancer-ridden Simon is trying to make sure his wife and child are financially secure in the future—but none of those storylines really justify Whit, Claire and Simon’s cruel actions. Minus Amy (Knightley), the actress the trio hires to play Love, Winslet’s character is really the only one who ever shows any sort of remorse for what they’re doing.
Will Smith delivers a powerful performance as always, although it’s Mirren as Brigitte who breathes the most life into the film. Mirren gives the movie the limited amount of heart and soul it has, which is a bit ironic considering she’s the actress hired in the film to play Death. Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”) also shines as a grieving mother trying to connect with Howard who runs a support group for parents dealing with the loss of a child.
While Loeb’s script is no doubt emotionally manipulative, it does have its strong points, including a couple of “This is Us”-like shockers at the end that will make viewers want to watch the film again to catch any clues they overlooked the first time. Still, viewers can’t help but feel Loeb was trying too hard to write a movie worthy of the talent attached to it and ended up writing a convoluted script instead that’s somehow both overly emotional and emotionless at the same time. There’s definitely some beauty in “Collateral Beauty.” Viewers just need to overlook a lot of bad things to find it.