Losing a child is one of the most traumatic experiences for any parent. Collateral Beauty exploits and manipulates that grieving process into an attempted life-affirming mess of aggressive tear-jerking and self-help superficiality.
This contrived ensemble drama from director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) sees a top-notch cast squandered in a story about overcoming personal obstacles that wallows in sentimentality at the expense of emotional authenticity.
It takes place in Manhattan, where Howard (Will Smith) is a charismatic advertising executive whose company is on the verge of a breakthrough. Then his daughter dies, and he becomes socially withdrawn and professionally indifferent.
As he wanders around in a haze — writing letters to Love, Death and Time looking for answers — his co-workers are dealing with personal crises of their own. For example, his business partner, Whit (Edward Norton), just finished a divorce and is struggling to connect with his young daughter.
So Whit and his colleagues hatch a plan to save the fledgling firm and simultaneously help Howard, by hiring a grassroots acting troupe led by a would-be diva (Helen Mirren) to respond to his letters. The actors confront Howard to offer pearls of wisdom in exchange for a hefty payday.
There might be an audience for this brand of dime-store healing, especially within the framework of the scenic New York winter, but any impactful message to bereaved parents about letting go and moving on tends to be lost amid all the shameless emotional manipulation that detracts from our sympathy for the characters and their respective plights.
The lachrymose screenplay by Allan Loeb (Here Comes the Boom) plays the role of therapist with minimal sensitivity, offering up an endless barrage of cheap platitudes. “Nothing’s ever really dead if you look at it right,” explains Mirren’s character in one of many such head-scratching exchanges.
The film treats terminal illness and other major life events as plot devices, with some eye-rolling twists thrown in. Unfortunately, some quality actors — including Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, and Naomie Harris — are left trying to elevate the lackluster material, with Smith’s perpetual look of detached bewilderment resonating with viewers for the wrong reasons.
It all takes place during the holidays, of course, just in case the emotional sledgehammer somehow missed the mark. And indeed, the ill-conceived idea for Collateral Beauty feels like it was rescued from the Hallmark Channel reject bin.