Two years after the death of his young daughter, once dynamic advertising exec Howard (Will Smith) remains unable to move on from the tragedy. Withdrawn from his life but still contractually the head of his firm, the now-divorced Howard drifts through days at the office by building complex domino mazes (man, so symbolic). His partners and longtime friends at the failing agency—Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña)—have an offer from a buyer who wants to take over the company, but Howard refuses to authorize it. So in order to cash out for millions, the trio decide to prove to the potential buyer that Howard is mentally incapable of retaining his voting share.
They hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to stalk Howard, and she soon discovers that he’s been writing letters to three abstract concepts—Love, Time, and Death—as a coping mechanism. Whit, Claire, and Simon then decide to hire three mysterious thespians (Helen Mirren as Death, Jacob Latimore as Time, and Keira Knightley as Love) to play the roles of these abstractions and confront Howard. Meanwhile, the PI will secretly record the proceedings, edit the actors out with CGI, and supply the monsters with their “proof” that Howard is a crazy person screaming at nothing. What an utterly insipid, craven idea for a tearjerker.
Of course, there are “layers” to this garbage. The three hired actors pair off with the ad people and expose the sadness or loss in each of their lives. Whit is a divorcé with a daughter who hates him (he gets Love), Claire was always too focused on her career to start a family (she draws Time), and Simon continually has one of those foreboding coughing fits (Death). To make things even more belabored, Howard also begins attending a support group for grieving parents, which is hosted by the later-to-become-important Madeleine (Naomie Harris).
The movie’s central conceit prevents viewers from investing in these characters, all of whom dish out platitudes ad infinitum. First of all, the acting trio are being paid to think of “deep” blurbs in order to antagonize Howard into filmable outbursts, and second, the plights of the three ad people are invalidated by their frankly sinister plan to muscle Howard out and seize their big payday. Smith is rendered essentially mute throughout the majority of the movie: Anytime it seems like he may open up or lash out, he simply glowers and walks out of frame. Everyone grieves differently, but not a whole lot in Collateral Beauty resembles believable human action (or even inaction). The film may also set a record for characters aimlessly walking in front of New York traffic to honking horns (it’s the cinematic antithesis of Dustin Hoffman’s “I’m walkin’ here!” moment in Midnight Cowboy).
Director David Frankel and his dishonorable scribe Allan Loeb have crafted this interminable, manipulative weepie under the guise of doling out some greater truth or beauty. Every twist or reveal is an artifice to deliver mawkish one-liners and elicit tears, and the script is full of pseudo-intellectual schlock and tidy little bows for the various characters’ sideplots—some of which require extreme mental gymnastics to accept.
The muddled morality and cognitive dissonance of the story’s players will leave you with many questions. Such as: Why did more than half a dozen top-flight talents go along with this? Is Allan Loeb a double agent who will reveal that his litany of saccharine scripts were actually a long con of satire? If we’re to believe what the film implores—that everything is interconnected—does that make us inherently responsible for this maudlin catastrophe? Loss and grief are difficult enough to endure without this Hallmark card of a movie to beat you senseless with banalities. Enjoy the holidays with your family and friends and avoid Collateral Beauty like the plague.