Imagine a modern-day “Christmas Carol” where the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future were hired actors recruited to help assemble a legal case against Ebenezer Scrooge.
Now make Scrooge a generous advertising executive mourning the death of his daughter, and you have the plot of “Collateral Beauty,” director David Frankel’s well-intended but overcooked holiday drama.
Howard (Will Smith) is a successful New York advertising executive who sells his products on their connections to love, time and death. But two years after the death of his 6-year-old daughter, Howard has retreated so far into himself that his agency is on the verge of financial ruin.
He won’t be the only casualty. His partner Whit (Edward Norton) is desperate to keep the business going, so he hatches a plan with Simon (Michael Peña) and Claire (Kate Winslet), two of his co-workers: recruit a trio of local actors to introduce themselves to Howard as the living manifestations of his three pillars, in the hopes that the encounters will either get him to snap out of his funk or give them the evidence they need to wrestle control of the agency.
A woman named Brigitte (Helen Mirren) will play Death, a young man named Raffi (Jacob Latimore) will play Time and a young actress named Amy (Keira Knightley) will play Love.
If you’re feeling unsettled at this point, you aren’t alone.
But while Howard might be the centerpiece of their project, each member of the trio winds up lending their hand to the problems faced by the conspirators. Simon is hiding his resurgent cancer from his family, but Brigitte figures out his secret. Claire is secretly shopping for sperm donors, so Raffi decides to teach her about the nature of motherhood. Finally, Amy tries to help Whit to reconnect with the angry preteen daughter he alienated when his infidelity led to her parents’ divorce.
When he isn’t dealing with phony supernatural beings, Howard is slowly warming up to a local support group for grieving parents and taking a special interest in the group’s leader, Madeleine (Naomie Harris).
With the right tone, “Collateral Beauty’s” odd plot might have worked. But the weight of Howard’s pain makes the manipulation of his co-workers — which feels every bit as selfish as it does sincere — feel uncomfortable. Mild attempts at humor fall flat, and the twists and turns of the film’s final act feel both predictable and confusing at the same time.
In a lot of ways, you could just say that Frankel overcooked some nice raw ingredients. The all-star cast is certainly giving their best, especially Smith, who spends most of the film in a shattered state near tears. But the noble performances aren’t enough to overcome the weaknesses of the story or the miscalculation of the tone.
If there is a success in the film, it is in the origin of its title, which comes from an anecdote shared by Madeline. When her own daughter was dying in the hospital, a wise woman counseled her to watch for the collateral beauty of life, even in the midst of her pain. In a film so polluted by manipulation and well-intended stumbles, that message feels like the one gem worth taking home.
“Collateral Beauty” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language; running time: 97 minutes.