If you weren't aware that Collateral Beauty, the gooey holiday drama out Friday in wide release, was directed by David Frankel (the same hero behind Marley & Me and lesser Owen Wilson vehicles, to say nothing of Hope Springs), you'll get wise within a few short minutes.
Because look, there, it's Will Smith, holding forth at his chic Manhattan advertising agency on the subject of love and commerce. He is the soul of the company. His rainbow staff of millennials fawn over him, hugging notepads and coffee mugs that might as well have "prop" scrawled on masking tape on their sides, while their boss and founder reminds them how crucial advertising is in this day and age, how advertising lets people get in touch with their hearts or something. It's delivered and received with the same smiling solemnity as a megachurch sermon, and it couldn't be any yuckier or emptier.
And we're under way.
Jumping a few years ahead, now, and Will Smith's Howard is down in the dumps. He lost his daughter to a rare disease two years back — so much for advertising! — and can now be found, if at all, erecting huge and elaborate edifices of dominos in the office's common areas. Whence these multicolored dominos sprang, or what the heck they're supposed to represent, who can say? Howard is checked out. That's the point. He rides his bike all over New York City like a zombie, barely speaks, and certainly can't be bothered to sign off on important company business. He can't even be persuaded to eat.
Sensing that the company's viability hangs in the balance, Howard's three top partners — Whit (Ed Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) — conspire to lift their pal from his mood. They hire a P.I. (Ann Dowd) and learn that Howard has been writing despairing letters to "Death," "Love" and "Time." And despite misgivings from Claire, they hire a trio of actors to embody these abstract recipients, to visit Howard and engage with him essentially as angels, to pull him up by his bootstraps.
This improbable troupe (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly, and the young Jacob Latimore) on this improbable mission further studs the A-list cast's star-studdedness, but confounds a plot so overflowing with boilerplate B-storylines it feels like an anthology.
Whit is a neglectful father, for instance, and a recovering philanderer to boot. Even around the holidays, his daughter refuses to spend time with him. Claire has neglected her personal life, devoting herself fully to the company. Only now is she considering having a child. She browses for sperm donors at every available moment, just in case you weren't aware that this was on her mind, and she's worried that it might be too late. Simon — say it with me — has cancer. He has cancer, you guys. And he and his wife just had a child, too. Dang!
Here's the best part, though: Through the intercession of the acting troupe that was meant to help Howard, the partners all realize that they need some help, too.
Meanwhile, Howard's steeling himself for some AA-style grief counseling, which leads to one of two big plot twists, both of which non-mobile-device-scrolling viewers will spot on the horizon at about the 20-minute mark.
All that said, with actors this good, glimmers of much better movies refract off Collateral Beauty's hideous sheen. Norton, Winslet and Mirren each can trick you, once or twice, into thinking that they are playing actual characters, that this is an actual story, that the whole thing is not just a construct cooked up by sinister Hollywood executives and their lab techs who are just as eager to cash in on the holiday season as the advertising industry.
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