“Collateral Beauty” should win some kind of award for Best Execution of a Truly Dreadful Concept. Chock-a-block with magnetic movie stars, and shot beautifully by talented cinematographer Maryse Alberti, all twinkling lights and Christmas in the city, it looks like an important and meaningful film. That’s all smoke and mirrors. Stars and cinematography can’t save the story, which is a misguided tale filled with armchair philosophizing and meaningless twists.
It feels as though screenwriter Allan Loeb thought up the term “collateral beauty,” thought it was neat, and then reverse-engineered a story where the characters could say “collateral beauty” a lot. “Look for the collateral beauty,” they say. It’s a phrase that seems like something the teenage Wes Bentley from “American Beauty” would have invented while chasing a plastic bag down the street with a camcorder.
Will Smith plays Howard, “poet philosopher of product,” or as we would say, an advertising executive, who gives inspiring but empty speeches to his staff demanding to know “what is your why?” and blabbing about the “three abstractions” of love, time and death. That’s what advertising is all about, baby.
The death of his child sends him into a downward spiral, until he’s nearly catatonic, leading a life of angry bicycling, extensive domino set-ups, and letter writing to love, time, and death. This regime is obviously not great for business, so his partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena) decide the best course of action is to shake down his majority voting shares by proving he’s mentally incompetent to make decisions. They hire a private eye (Ann Dowd), and the strangest theater company of all time, Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to pretend to be the three abstractions and confront Howard on the street. This plan, it’s cockamamie.
The far more interesting movie would be the one that explains just how Brigitte and Raffi came to be in a theater company together, but alas, the plot skitters around as we watch Howard emerge from his fugue state. This “devastated and unstable” vibe is not Smith’s best zone as an actor, so it begs the question why he still chooses these cheesy, quasi-uplifting, high-concept projects such as “Seven Pounds” or “The Pursuit of Happyness” every few years.
There’s never any real definition of “collateral beauty,” just some vague aphorisms that “we are all connected.” But the movie, obsessed with its own twists and inane mysticism, essentially robs the meaning from that idea. If the film explored how strangers and loved ones managed to overcome emotional obstacles and learn things from each other, that would be poignant. Instead we have a demented tapestry of bizarre interactions and strange choices that results in a bigger picture that reveals absolutely nothing at all.
Cast: Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Naomie Harris.
Director: David Frankel.
Screenwriter: Allan Loeb.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 97 minutes. Strong language, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.