It comes as no surprise that the best part about “Collateral Beauty” occurs when Dame Helen Mirren, playing an unknown actress (what range!), says: “Maybe I should play all of the parts.” Maybe she should have. Sure, the script would be the same paint-by-numbers melodrama, but at least there might be a kernel of artistry to interpret in this self-satisfied tragedy. And it’d be more fun than watching Will Smith crying on a bike for two hours.
Let’s not be too harsh on Howard Inlet, Smith’s character and the center of this feel-bad tale. After all, exercise is really good for grief. One would think with all that bike riding he does, Howard would be able to talk two years after the death of his daughter, but apparently all he can do is furrow his brow and quiver a protruding lower lip.
His business partners feel the same way. Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) are worried sick about Howard ever since all he does at work is make YouTube-worthy domino displays, not even sticking around to watch the ordered chaos of the falling tiles. Howard is the founder of the company, and they are losing accounts left and right since he doesn’t speak words anymore. As discussed in a highly confidential huddle in the middle of their open-floor plan Soho office, Whit, Claire, and Simon must figure out how to get their friend to live again. Oh – and sign the papers on the buyout that will save them all.
When they hire a private investigator to follow Howard, she discovers he has been sending letters. To whom? “Not who, what,” the P.I. explains. Indeed: The letters are addressed to Love, Death, and Time — or as Howard explains in the movie’s opening scene: “These three things connect every single human being on earth. We long for love, we wish we had more time and we fear death.” This is the actual focus of the movie, which comes equipped with the painful tagline, “We Are All Connected.”
When Whit meets Aimee (Keira Knightley), he is so taken by her waif-like charm that he follows her out of the building and into a musty old theater (not creepy at all), where he finds her rehearsing. She’s joined by Brigitte (Mirren) and Raffi (charismatic newcomer Jacob Latimore), lounging onstage against a backdrop of rotating abstract set pieces that mostly look like enormous lamps. Whit has the brilliant idea to hire the actors to play Love, Death, and Time in order to cajole Howard out of his zombified state. In Whit’s words, if they can’t bring Howard into their reality, they must enter his.
With the domino pieces in place, the plot then coasts along rather predictably. Each actor is coached by one of the three business partners for their big moment with Howard, but guess who ends up doing the real coaching? Whit, Claire, and Simon are each dealing with their own problems, which the pseudo fates suss out quickly. Meanwhile, it seems Howard was on his way to acceptance all along, as he has been lurking outside the window of a grief counseling group for quite some time. His run-in with Death provides the extra nudge that gets him in the door, but it’s Madeleine (Naomie Harris) who keeps him there.
Seeing Smith play a failed father calls to mind the similarly heavy-handed “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the 2006 film that earned Smith an Oscar nomination that year. That movie at least tackled the somewhat noble goal of depicting the true story of a man struggling to raise himself out of poverty and homelessness. With the bizarre way Whit and his crew talk about numbers and money, “Collateral Beauty” is just another story about spoiled rich people.
“Collateral Beauty” is in theaters on Friday, December 16.