Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Frankel
Stars: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Kylie Rogers.
“There is collateral beauty in everything.” Ironically though there is little beauty to be found in this maudlin and flawed drama about grief and a man damaged by his sense of loss. There have been a lot of films dealing with death and the grieving process that explore how different people respond to loss. Despite a stellar cast of A-listers and the pedigree of director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, etc) though, this cloyingly sentimental and saccharine drama will be unlikely to resonate with audiences.
A couple of years after the death of his young daughter, high-powered advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) is grieving and has drowned in self-pity. He has become reclusive, uncommunicative and largely withdrawn, and has abrogated his responsibilities at the company. Instead he spends most of his time erecting elaborate structures with dominoes and then demolishing them (surely this works as a metaphor of sorts?) His three colleagues Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) worry about him and his mental state. They want to sell the company but Howard refuses to even consider signing the papers.
Tired of waiting for him to snap out of his depression they hire a private investigator to follow him around, hoping that she can find evidence to prove that Howard is mentally unfit to run the company. She reports back that Howard is writing angry letters to Time, Love and Death, the three abstracts that he believes that everyone shares in common. They then hire a trio of struggling actors Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Kiera Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore, from The Maze Runner, etc) to play the three esoteric abstracts and try to snap Howard out of his self-pitying mood.
Thus Howard has encounters with the three on the streets as he goes about his life, and their increasingly personal conversations begin to have an impact. And in the meantime, Howard is uncertain about joining a grief counselling support group led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris, from the Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, etc).
But Howard’s three colleagues are also flawed and have their own issues to deal with. Whit has recently undergone a painful and messy divorce and is trying to win back the trust of his estranged daughter (Kylie Rogers); Claire is aware that she has put her career ahead of her own personal happiness and now her biological clock is ticking; and Simon is hiding his own serious illness from his friends.
Collateral Beauty is trying its hardest to be a Capraesque-like feel good fantasy that combines elements of the perennial classic It’s A Wonderful Life and Touched By An Angel, but it falls short of such lofty aspirations. The script from Allen Loeb (comedies like The Switch, The Dilemma, etc) though is somewhat heavy handed and full of empty aphorisms and clichés that would be better suited to a Hallmark greeting card. It loosely uses the template of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to have Smith’s character visited by three wise visitors. Frankel’s direction lacks the subtlety that the material required and also comes across as a little heavy handed, unnecessarily contrived, cloyingly sentimental and cynically manipulative.
The solid ensemble cast deserve better than this maudlin dross. Smith does deliver a solid, anguished performance as a man crushed by an overwhelming sense of grief and imprisoned by his own personal demons. Mirren brings her usual sense of gravitas to her role here but she also infuses her character with a delightful sense of whimsy.
Cinematographer Maryse Alberti has shot the film in widescreen and effectively uses the New York cityscape as a picturesque backdrop to the drama. Theodore Shapiro’s lush score is also a tad too manipulative.
This disappointing and shamelessly manipulative film tugs at the heartstrings, but it lacks the emotional honesty and catharsis of the recent Manchester By The Sea, which also deals with themes of loss, parental grief, redemption, and overcoming loss.
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