Grade: C+
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2016, 97 min., Color
Drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD UltraViolet
Trailer
Amazon link

A feel-good movie about death?

Sounds crazy, but that’s what Collateral Beauty tries to be. It’s a message film that wants audiences to appreciate the beautiful moments that can accompany a death—whether it’s a final shared conversation, an act of generosity, or a small kindness that helps someone cope.

If you’re no big fan of message films . . . or contrived plots . . . or melodramas where you know the whole point of a film is to make viewers feel something, then you probably won’t care too much for this 2016 drama starring Will Smith. And if you are a fan, you won’t appreciate that most viewers will be able to see the plot twists coming long before the turn.

Smith plays Howard, a New York ad agency exec who shows up for work every day but is no longer engaged in day-to-day operations. He’s not retired—he’s grieving. He lost a six-year-old daughter to cancer, and now all he feels like doing is stacking elaborate domino structures in his office. He wanders through each day numb with pain and at one point rides his bicycle fast as he can against traffic on a one-way street.

Now here’s the biggest plot contrivance: Unable to participate in a therapy group for parents who have lost children, Howard writes letters to three abstract concepts and puts them in the mailbox. Dear Death . . . Dear Time . . . Dear Love . . . .

It’s a film about “threes,” as there are three of his associates who are begging him to snap out of it before they lose all of the accounts he personally landed: Whit (Edward Norton), the partner who built the company with him; Claire (Kate Winslet), one of the firm’s top account executives; and Simon (Michael Peña), another top account exec. Each of those people has problems of his/her own, of course, and the deus ex machina that sets everything right—or as right as anything can ever be again, when death is involved—is the trio’s plan to enlist three actors to play those abstract concepts and confront Howard. At first their intentions seem sympathetic—maybe it will shock him back to reality?—but then it’s clear that they put money ahead of feelings. They hope to film Howard losing it as he talks to these abstractions, and thereby take a page from Miracle on 34th Street and commit poor Howard to an institution.

That’s the whole plot, right there, and the character development you get is just as contrived because plot drives this narrative, not characters. People are just along for the ride—but that won’t matter to viewers who like “big picture” movies and crave answers as much as Howard does. And the performances are decent. Helen Mirren is only slightly heavy-handed as Brigitte, an actress-director of a local theater company who accepts a deal to play Death, Time, and Love in exchange for funding their newest production. She is the oldest and so she volunteers to be Death. Amy (Keira Knightley) plays love, while Raffi (Jacob Latimore) takes on the role of Time.

As the three actors confront Howard, he has extended conversations with them, but those conversations are frankly less interesting than a sideplot involving grief support group leader Madeline (Naomie Harris), who tells those in her group that have lost children that the pain will never go away. Yet, they can learn how to deal with it. That kind of honesty feels refreshing, especially when everything else about this film feels so artificial.

A Warner Bros. summary of the film says that it’s not until Howard’s letters to Death, Time, and Love “bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.” That sounds a little tidier and a lot more ontologically satisfying than the film really is. You aren’t going to learn the meaning of life by watching this film, or even the meaning of death. Religion doesn’t even enter into the equation. In fact, I was wondering, as I watched, how the film would be received by people who are religious, or who are facing death themselves, or grieving like Howard, or still far removed from death’s ravages. Collateral Beauty was released in mid-December, and almost every scene has holiday decorations in it—so many that you can’t escape the implication. It’s a different kind of holiday film, for those who feel alone in the world, or who need even the slightest package of positives to unwrap. But be warned: Collateral Beauty is the kind of film that can affect people in profoundly different ways, and I’m guessing that not all of them will be beautiful.

Language: Scattered minor swearwords and one F-bomb uttered, appropriately, on the F Train
Sex: Nothing really, except an implied affair
Violence: n/a
Adult situations: The whole concept is and the implied metaphysical argument is adult, so much so that I can’t imagine children getting into it
Takeaway: Playing Death, Time, and Love isn’t easy, but it’s still easier than making a film about those three abstract concepts

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