At the very moment when a film has appeared that deals honestly and powerfully with the subject of grief—“Manchester by the Sea”—it seems almost incongruous that we should simultaneously get such a sappy, sentimental treatment of the subject as “Collateral Beauty.” It’s a totally shameless, crudely manipulative tearjerker, but despite incredibly strenuous effort, it doesn’t even succeed on that low level. Watching it you’re more likely to snicker than to wipe away tears.
Like so many truly bad films, “Beauty” begins with an astoundingly tasteless premise, provided by writer-producer Allan Loeb. Howard Inlet (Will Smith), hotshot head of a successful New York ad agency, is devastated by the death of his beloved six-year old daughter and retreats into grief-ridden isolation. Depressed and uncommunicative, his office activity consists solely in constructing elaborate domino arrangements and then watching them collapse. The business naturally suffers and is at danger of going under, unless Howard can be roused from his despair or, alternatively, shunted aside to allow a buyout offer from another firm to move forward.
That’s when one of his three partners—Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), a divorced dad at odds with his embittered daughter Allison (Kylie Rogers)—convinces the other two, workaholic Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet), whose biological clock is ticking, and Simon Scott (Michael Pena), a nice guy with the sort of ominous cough that’s a cinematic staple, to hire investigator Sally Price (Ann Dowd) to spy on Howard and find something they could use to have him declared legally incompetent. When she discovers that he has posted angry letters to Death, Time and Love, Whit suggests that they hire three actors from a struggling theatrical troupe—Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and Aimee (Keira Knightley)—to approach Howard in the guise of those abstractions and goad him into actions that can be filmed to provide proof of his mental instability.
The plan is incredibly cruel, of course, but in desperation they go through with it. Simultaneously Howard takes halting steps to join a therapy group of grieving parents led by sympathetic counselor Madeleine (Naomie Harris).
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal in detail what results from all this, though it’s certainly appropriate to point out some of the inanities that follow (like the ease with which the actors are removed from the footage of their interaction with Howard so that he appears to be engaged in solitary rants). Suffice it to say that the maudlin quotient escalates exponentially as the story proceeds, since the ruse leads each of its three perpetrators to go into confessional mode about their own regrets while fretting over the damage their plan is doing to their already-suffering friend.
But it’s in the final reel that the movie goes completely bonkers. Nodding in the direction of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it offers not just one cathartic climax but a whole bunch of them, before adding a few twists meant to take the tale into magical territory. If just one of these plot turns occurred, it would justifiably be dismissed as ludicrous; but as they’re piled atop one another, “Collateral Beauty” ascends to a level of astronomical absurdity that very few films have ever approached, let alone reached. In the process any emotional investment you might have made in the story simply evaporates as you stare at the screen, marveling at the ridiculousness of it all.
No actors could have put this material across, but under David Frankel’s benumbed direction Smith is certainly detrimental to the cause, giving a performance that feels like a sad appeal for award recognition rather than an authentic expression of a father’s pain. Norton, Winslet and Pena have rarely—if ever—been worse, and the same can be said of Knightley and of Harris, whose blissful smiles suggest that she was thinking of something other than the script during filming. The only person who adds any sort of spark to the proceedings is Mirren, who pushes the whimsical eccentricity button a bit too easily but is still an oasis in this desert of heavy-handedness. Technically the film is fine, with attractive interiors courtesy of production designer Beth Mickle and lovely exteriors of NYC courtesy of cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Theodore Shapiro’s music aims for the jugular all too obviously.
“Collateral Beauty” aims to warm the heart, but it’s more likely to cause heartburn instead.