“Collateral Beauty” could be a theater class experiment. What happens if you take a sentimental script and hand it to a superb group of actors? In lesser hands this could be a Hallmark movie or a block of Velveeta, but with its stellar cast it somehow becomes a thing of (collateral) beauty.
For many, this will be seen as a Will Smith movie, but here he gives us neither the man who inhabits a character as in “Ali” or “Concussion,” nor the “Men in Black”/ “Independence Day” swagger or the “Fresh Prince” megawatt smile and hearty chortle.
Rather, we get the signature charismatic Smith for approximately the first 90 seconds, as his character, Howard Inlet, explains to his ad agency team how the three abstractions — Death, Time and Love — are the basis not only of advertising but of life. This speech is enough to show why his employees, clients and shareholders adore him, and to remind us why we come to see his movies.
Alas, we immediately flash forward to “Three Years Later” and Howard is a man torn by grief -- wrinkled, grizzled and weathered (probably how President Obama would look if he had served another eight years). Be forewarned that Smith’s character is grieving the loss of a child, and as expected, the sadness is palpable, relentless and unfortunately for the film, often uninteresting.
Smith has said he made this film to help him deal with the death of his father, and he certainly captures grief. His colleagues are losing patience with him and while that seems uncharitable at the start of the film, 30 minutes in we can sympathize with them and wonder if making a comedy would have been more therapeutic for him.
So why is this journey worth taking? Because the cast is comprised of some of the best actors working today with an incredible 18 Academy Award nominations among them. Along with Smith, we have Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley. Even the lesser-known actors — Naomie Harris, Michael Pena and Jacob Lattimore — more than hold their own with their heavyweight co-stars. Harris, who was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for her very different role in “Moonlight,” is especially compelling as the leader of a grief support group. You cannot take your eyes off her.
Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) gives us some great scenes with the dream cast, interspersed with lots of scenes of Howard riding his bike into traffic, and walking around in a blind state of grief. Norton is completely believable as Howard’s partner who has screwed up his personal life and now sees his agency going under. He and Mirren also provide much-needed comic relief, with Mirren reveling in her role as an underemployed actor.
To say too much about the plot would be a disservice, but like television’s hit drama “This is Us” the twists will keep you talking afterward. It can be as symbolic or as literal as your interpretation allows, and will leave you hopeful.
It’s hard to predict if audiences will want to take such an emotional ride at the holidays, but the supporting performances and overall message make it a worthwhile one. Here’s hoping Will Smith’s next movie is a comedy.
3 stars (out of four)
Director: David Frankel
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
Running time: 96 minutes.
The lowdown: After a successful New York advertising executive suffers a great tragedy, he retreats from life and his friends try desperately to reconnect with him.