To watch “Collateral Beauty” is to feel both moved and manipulated. If there are tears, they’ll be practically squeezed out of you by a tragic plot device: the death of a little girl.
That girl’s father, Howard (Will Smith), is the man at the center of the story. Two years after the loss, he’s still struggling to cope with his grief. Once the charismatic president of an ad agency, an upbeat man who gave his employees TED-like pep talks, he now spends his days carefully constructing intricate domino displays, only to — metaphor alert — knock them all down. Living alone in a minimalist New York apartment, Howard doesn’t eat or sleep much, though he has picked up one especially interesting hobby: He composes letters — handwritten, addressed and actually mailed — to such to abstract concepts as Love, Time and Death.
These letters would, no doubt, have landed in a post office trash can if Howard’s closest friends hadn’t hired a private investigator to follow him. Whit, Claire and Simon (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña) also happen to work with Howard, and they have a baldly self-serving reason to follow him. Sure, they’re worried about him, a little, but they also want to prove that he’s not mentally competent enough to run the company so that the trio can sell the place and make bank.
In an apparent effort to soften the ickiness of the scheming, the film is also set up so that each character just happens to be dealing with his or her own issues: Whit is penniless after a bitter divorce that has turned his daughter against him; Claire has been married to her job all these years and laments never starting a family; and Simon has a suspicious cough that won’t go away. Better get that checked.
Things get even more complicated when Howard’s “friends” hire three actors, played by Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Helen Mirren, to impersonate Love, Time and Death, and to and confront Howard about the letters. The dubious plan is to secretly record those interactions — a depressed man having heated conversations with abstract entities — then edit out the actors. Voilà: proof of insanity.
To put it more bluntly, this story doesn’t really make sense. But what’s the point of a plot anyway, when you have extreme close-ups of Smith, his bloodshot eyes welling with tears as he thinks back to a sunny afternoon in a park with his daughter (Alyssa Cheatham)? The movie’s manipulations are no more subtle than those of Howard’s friends — and they’re just as effective. What kind of stone-cold monster wouldn’t get emotional watching a father mourn?
When Smith isn’t on screen, the movie maintains a surprisingly breezy tone, given the dark subject matter. The comedic aspects shouldn’t come as a shock, though, considering that the movie was written by Allan Loeb, the screenwriter of such comedies as “Here Comes the Boom” and “Just Go With It.” Mirren is especially amusing as a Bohemian artiste who’s delighted by the acting challenge of playing Death. “This is Chekhov,” she says after meeting Howard for the first time. Most of the other A-listers, however, aren’t given nearly as much to do.
“Collateral,” which was directed by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”), has the gloss of an expensive, slickly produced project. New York City never looked so clean, nor sadness so beautiful. The movie manages to be simultaneously superficial and heartbreaking. That’s no easy feat — nor is it a laudable one.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 97 minutes.