Whatever the “meaning” of “Collateral Beauty” — and the title is given an incomplete but understandable definition in the film — it is to be appreciated for the lovely people it captures in loving, perfect close-ups.
As Will Smith’s mad ad-man “Howard” passes through his dark night of the soul, he is visited by the flower of Britain’s Big Screen Beauties. And skipping past the film’s failed weeper ambitions, I’m still hard-pressed to think of a movie where Oscar winners Helen Mirren and Kate Winslet, and future Oscar winners Naomie Harris and Kyra Knightly, looked more beautiful.
Howard was once a brilliant, witty delight, a Big Dreamer boss of a New York ad agency whose offices put Google and Apple campuses to shame in their whimsical, forward-thinking impracticality.
But Howard is broken, drowning in grief, unreachable by his longtime business partner (Edward Norton) and most trusted, compassionate colleagues (Winslet, Michael Pena). Howard lost a child, and ever since he’s been lost.
He’s become a loner, riding his Schwinn through the mean streets in suicidal sprints, building massive domino tumbles in his office and writing angry letters to “Death,” “Time” and “Love,” cursing time as “a dead tissue that won’t decompose” and the like.
So, with the company spiraling down the toilet with a buyout as its only chance at salvation, the “compassionate” friends hire a struggling acting troupe to play “Death,” “Time” and “Love”to visit Howard and respond to his letters.
Yeah, Allen Loeb’s script is cribbing from “A Christmas Carol.” And yes, the actors know exactly what’s up.
“So, you want us to ‘Gaslight’ your boss?”
Death, to be played by Brigitte (Mirren), is to debate him about life and the eternal, and she really gets into the part, looking for notes, clues and improv suggestions from the partner (Pena) who coaches her.
Time, played the prettiest “streetwise” “thug” in screen history (Jacob Lattimore) confronts Howard, takes umbrage at his insults. “I’m ABUNDANT,” he shouts at the man wallowing in years of hurt. Quit wasting time — “I’m a GIFT!”
Howard’s letter to “Love” was the toughest of all. “Goodbye.” Amy (Knightly), the most emotional of the actors and most troubled by what they’re doing, takes her role to heart.
“Don’t try and live without me, Howard!”
Will they cure the man, or just provide evidence for the private eye (Ann Dowd) following and videotaping each of these encounters with things/people who aren’t really there?
Will Howard have a breakthrough with his all-caring grief support group counselor (Naomie Harris)?
Can Will Smith earn his coveted Oscar with this latest shameless grasp at that elusive prize?
Smith is reasonably comfortable in this role, though his spot-on timing means he’s so much better at the comic moments — yanking his hat on and stomping off at Death’s second visit with an emphatic and funny Will Smith “NUH-uh.”
He benefits from an overabundance of stellar supporting talent, with Mirren, Winslet, Harris and Knightly dazzling, Norton his usual impressive self and Pena getting to show a sad, dramatic side we rarely see.
But if “Collateral” fails to move you — and it might, because I was untouched — it may have to do with the clumsy clockwork machinations of a script that has to make its entire unholy and unethical premise seem “logical” and understandable.
It twists itself into a pretzel to create parallels — Howard isn’t the only damaged person at that agency.
Loeb gives us a Big Revelation or two, and Mirren provides a delightful “ACTING” enthusiasm for the performances her group is to give.
“This isn’t Noel Coward! This is CHEKHOV!”
But it isn’t either. It’s just a script that folds in on itself with a few moments of misdirection in it, a trick or two up its sleeve.
All “Collateral” amounts to is a shiny film that invites you to lose yourself in the romance of great faces, made up to perfection, misty-eyed with sympathy and affection.
Well, great faces and Will Smith’s ears.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Cast: Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Keira Knightly, Michael Pena
Credits:Directed by David Frankel, script by Allen Loeb. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:37