Director David Frankel is no stranger to emotionally manipulative films, with his credits ranging from dog movie Marley & Me through to inspiration porn One Chance. With COLLATERAL BEAUTY, he pulls back the curtain to reveal the wizard in a story that consciously plays with those susceptible strings. The premise is profoundly silly, but it takes us on a sentimental journey for a message that isn’t entirely unwanted in our darkening times.
Passionate advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) believes marketing can change the world by appealing to three basic tenants: love, time, and death. However, when his daughter tragically dies, he is reduced to a near catatonic state. His business partners Whit Yardshaw (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet), and Simon Scott (Michael Peña) are worried about his ability to run the company, especially when they discover Howard is writing breakup letters to his trio of abstract concepts. So in order to bring his diminished capacity to light, they hire three actors to play Love (Kiera Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Helen Mirren) and confront him.
As far as convoluted plots go, COLLATERAL BEAUTY certainly takes the cake. It’s difficult to put the morality of it all to one side, and it really is a cruel plot with dubious intentions. Yet what we are left with at the heart of Allan Loeb’s script is a reflection on a man’s life, loosely modelled on the formula Frank Capra perfected almost eight decades earlier. Frankel doesn’t get anywhere close to the sincere Americana of the master, even if Maryse Alberti’s photography is a visual love letter to New York.
Saccharine dialogue, mostly from Knightley’s Love, is expected and forced. However, Loeb’s screenplay mostly falters in its attempts to overload the brief film with far too many narrative thread. As the triptych of actors begin working with each of Howard’s partners, all three of them develop their own issues, such as Claire’s desire to have a baby or Whit’s relationship with his estranged daughter. It detracts from a very low-key Smith as the nominal lead, meaning that the primary storyline has to wrap up in a neat bow ridiculously quickly.
It’s difficult to be too harsh on a film that takes a ‘love conquers all’ attitude to life, even if it is in the name of commercial success. Ultimately, COLLATERAL BEAUTY is a film devoid of any real emotion. Indeed, the plot is a meta reference to the production itself, replacing the big themes of love and death with reasonable facsimiles that stand in for the real thing.