When the trailer for Collateral Beauty first hit the internet, the first question asked in unison across social media was “Is this movie real?” The film, which stars Will Smith and a fancy assortment of familiar Oscars season faces, appeared to be about a grieving father who is visited by the personifications of Love, Time, and Death (Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Helen Mirren, respectively), all three of whom help him come to terms with his loss and learn to embrace life again. This would be a terrible idea for a movie, a high-school-level stab at magical realism too thin and thudding to sustain for the duration of a feature film.
You may be relieved to hear, then, that that is not actually what Collateral Beauty is about. Collateral Beauty is about an ad man named Howard (Smith) whose crippling grief after the death of his 6-year-old daughter has made him unable to work, thus becoming a financial inconvenience for his partners at the agency. (The Big Account is, as always, at risk.) Left with no other recourse, they hire three actors at $20,000 a pop to play abstract concepts and harass Howard into either getting over his dead kid, or having a mental breakdown so comprehensive that he can be legally declared unfit to run the agency. (They go back and forth over which is the preferred outcome.) It is truly a Christmas Carol for our time: In place of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, they dispatch Love, Time, and Death, the “three abstractions” Howard once praised as the foundational concepts that get people to buy things. His colleagues refer to the “three abstractions” throughout the film with the urgent solemnity of characters in a Dan Brown novel, mystical totems of commerce that may now hold the key to their friend’s rapidly disintegrating sanity.
It’s not apparent that director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) or writer Allan Loeb (Just Go With It) are aware of what a dark tale they have on their hands; the proceedings are told with the dull literalism of inspirational filmmaking. Nor is there any acknowledgement that Whit (Ed Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña,) the scheming trio behind this Extreme Gaslighting: Madison Avenue Edition, are morally irredeemable. They reassure each other that they’re not just manipulating Howard to keep themselves in seven-to-eight figures, but to save the jobs of their staff. But when the film takes a brief interlude to be reminded of the stakes, we see an uninspiring open-plan office filled with scowling junior creatives arranging index cards on white boards, all the better to influence us with. The film seems completely un-conflicted in the tragic nobility of brand builders. At least Norton finally gets to play a character named Whit, which has somehow not happened already.
While everyone’s working on their big campaign and inevitably learning their own lessons about Love, Time, and Death, Howard begins attending a support group, and forms a bond with another grieving parent played by Naomie Harris. Harris, so multifaceted and tragic in this year’s Moonlight, gets about twice the screen time here, with a tenth of the emotional material. (She’s also a key player in the movie’s undercooked third-act twist, the worst of 2016.) She supplies the film’s titular concept, which refers to the broadened emotional spectrum that comes with pain and recovery — the same tension that powers the inspirational cinema that Collateral Beauty aspires to be. The thing is, even the most facile of those films try to convey that basic drama through filmmaking and performance, not by verbally explaining the concept of dramatic catharsis like a term paper on Poetics.
That analytical approach carries over to all aspects of this strangely cold and uninviting holiday film. Collateral Beauty has all the signifiers of a heart-warmer, but its would-be aspirational Christmas in New York is established with flat shots of Rockefeller Center’s skating rink and an austerely fashionable Bergdorf window — cinema by Google Image Search. The cast feels checked out: Winslet and Norton, two attractive and charismatic performers, have never looked more painted and tired. Outside of the support group, no actors but the principals have speaking lines, and once you realize this, the film’s Manhattan streets feel ghostly and artificial.
I left Collateral Beauty most reminded of The Truman Show, another film in which a man is routinely lied to by his closest friends, all in the name of selling beer and slicer-dicers. Unlike Truman, Howard never really learns the truth, even if he does get to move on with his life. The film’s prolonged final shot, meant to be heartwarming and hopeful, reminds us that the charade could start again at any moment.