Collateral Beauty is about Howard (Will Smith), who is initially introduced as a brilliant advertising mogul at the height of his powers. Three years later, he’s falling apart following the death of his six-year-old daughter. While his business partners try to find a way to save the firm, they discover that Howard has been dealing with his loss by writing letters to the abstract concepts of love, time, and death. Howard’s best friend Whit (Edward Norton) hires three actors to take on the role of these three concepts and answer Howard’s letters, hoping that this radical approach will help him heal. Failing that, they’re hoping to just get some footage that proves that Howard isn’t fit to be running the firm anymore.Adding contrivance to this already shaky premise are the personal struggles of each of Howard’s business partners. Whit, who deals with the actress playing Love (Keira Knightley), happens to be trying to connect with his daughter, who has come to hate him following his divorce. Claire (Kate Winslet), who is briefing the ersatz Time (Jacob Latimore), is considering making up for lost time by having a baby. And Simon (Michael Peña), who talks with Death (Helen Mirren), has a terminal illness that he is hiding from everyone. And there’s an added wrinkle that involves Howard and a woman from a support group that is better left not discussed.Amazingly, none of this is a joke. Everyone involved in this production read this screenplay, mulled over the strange premise of actors pretending to be abstract concepts in an attempt to rile a sad millionaire out of his grief, and then later doing it again for the sake of attaining digitally manipulated footage that proves his unstable state of mind and somehow decided that this was a worthy dramatization of how people deal with grief. The overly contrived structure, which has the film filling out an easy narrative pattern of scenes, is so removed from human experience that it is difficult to fathom how no one among the considerable talents that took part in this picture seems to have brought up any objections.This movie just exhibits bad judgment all around. Right from the start, it seems bent on telling the audience everything they need to know, rather than showing them. This is a movie basically made up of conversations, its prestige aspirations apparently keeping it from showing us anything more visually exciting than dominos falling over. The suffocating seriousness keeps the camera from doing anything remotely interesting. The film seems thoroughly convinced that all of its value can be found in these actors delivering their overly explanatory dialogue.
And this proves to be a poor investment, especially in the final portions. The film has one last twist to deploy, and it’s a doozy. It is just another step away from the simple humanity of grief, these characters becoming so far removed from reality that their emotions become unrecognizable. It does help that Will Smith seems to have decided that the best way to convey his character’s complex feeling is to not move his face a lot. The combined might of Mirren, Norton, Knightley, Peña and Winslet do nothing to salvage this bizarrely pitched screenplay.Collateral Beauty is the kind of film that may lead you to suspect that Hollywood is indeed out of touch with the common man. Perhaps the people involved have become so successful that they no longer no how to function like regular human beings. Because this film paints a picture of grief and recovery that goes to a pretty ludicrous extreme and treats it like it’s supposed to be heartwarming. But it is bizarre and inhuman, the narrative acrobatics of the script taking priority over any sort of emotional verisimilitude.