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Will Smith Finds Time, Death and Love in ‘Collateral Beauty’

Dec. 13, 2016
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In the opening scene of Collateral Beauty, New York advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) leads his staff in a corporate pep rally. A philosopher of consumption he claims his agency’s job is about “illuminating how products will improve people’s lives.” In his mind, it all comes down to three concepts: Love-Time-Death.

Collateral Beauty

Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton and Kate Winslet

Directed by: David Frankel

Rated PG-13

Howard’s sophistry will come back to haunt him, literally. Three years later: he’s been in a deep self-pitying sulk after the death of his 6-year-old daughter, and comes to work in the agency’s trendy loft office but is virtually catatonic. His firm will be sold and everyone will lose their jobs unless his partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña), implement a scheme that will jolt Howard back to reality or cause him to be declared mentally incompetent.

At the center of their plot is a trio of struggling thespians, whom Howard’s colleagues pay handsomely to play the roles of Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Helen Mirren). The actors stalk him like some hybrid of Scrooge’s ghosts and the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life. Make no mistake: The trees, tinsel and holiday lights signal that this is supposed to be a Christmas movie filled with hope and cheer. Howard glares back in disbelief at first at those embodied abstractions from his motivational pep talks, but they are good actors, and he begins to believe that Love, Time and Death are speaking to him. Their playacting is starting to move their one-person audience.

Pity Collateral Beauty doesn’t have as powerful an effect on its audience. The movie takes half an hour before it starts to become funny and then humor combines with tragedy like an oil slick in water. And tragedy comes in spades: Whit is uncongenially divorced and his daughter hates him; Claire, who devoted her life to work, is looking into sperm banks to satisfy her maternal urge; Simon is dying of a terminal illness but no one knows, not even his wife.

Along with its uncertain tone, where laughter rear-ends tears in low speed collisions, the screenplay groans with unbelievable plot points. Director David Frankel showed a talent for comedy with The Devil Wears Prada, but the story he was handed in Collateral Beauty is a mess. Even the first-rate cast, including outstanding performances from supporting actors such as Mirren and Latimore, can only carry it so far.

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