An all-star cast submits to flagrant actor abuse in “Collateral Beauty,” which is every bit as lame as its title. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, this is a movie where we watch Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley and several other fine players bore holes in themselves so that we can watch the sap run out.
Smith plays Howard, the co-head of a major Manhattan ad agency who is first seen giving an inspirational speech to his besotted staff as he asks the question, “What is your why?” Smith is initially semi-sprightly, but there is already a sad little shine in his eyes that swiftly grows into a puddle of photogenic sorrow after we find out that his young daughter has died.
Two years after the death of his child, Howard is doing almost nothing but setting up domino displays in the office, and so of course his co-owners Whit (Norton), Claire (Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) are getting nervous, particularly because they are about to lose an important client and they need to get Howard’s go-ahead for a buy-out.
Whit has just gone through a messy divorce where he was spied on by a detective (Ann Dowd), and so he hires this detective to prove that Howard is out of his head. Poor Norton gets the worst of it in these set-up scenes with painfully blunt expository dialogue that not even the most over-qualified performer could have delivered naturally, and the editing in this section is slovenly, with several shots of Norton in movement that don’t quite match.
It turns out that Howard has been writing letters to … abstract concepts, including Love, Time and Death. Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) puts a few incongruously perky pop songs on the soundtrack for scene transitions, as is his wont, but he soon drops them in order to focus more intently on one painfully corny scene after another.
During an audition at the ad agency, Whit gets a new slogan from the edgy Amy (Knightley) and follows her to a small theater where she is rehearsing a play for the Hegel Theater Company (!) along with Brigitte (Helen Mirren) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore). These hard-up thespians get involved in a harebrained scheme to prove that Howard is unbalanced, wherein they are hired to play Love, Time, and Death by the other heads of the ad agency in exchange for $20,000 a piece to fund whatever it is they are working on for their company. (It’s named, of course, after a philosopher whose main thesis was that things themselves have no intrinsic properties but exist only as they are perceived.)
And wait, there’s more! Howard starts going to a group therapy session led by Madeleine (Harris), a young woman who has also lost her young daughter. Poor Harris has to put over a scene where Madeleine tells Howard about being at the hospital when an older woman turned to her to say that she must appreciate the “collateral beauty” of her situation. Yes, Harris is actually made to say the ultra-lame title of this movie out loud — more than once — and she acts as if it is the most profound statement in the world.
Smith spends almost all of “Collateral Beauty” furrowing his brow and looking like he is about to cry, and Norton and Winslet do their own brow furrowing and pools of tears, too. Norton’s Whit has both an estranged daughter and a mother with dementia to deal with, while Winslet’s Claire mainly stares at computer screens trying to find a sperm donor to stop the ticking of her biological clock. And Peña’s Simon keeps on coughing …
In the midst of all this plot overkill, only Mirren manages to squeeze out a few amusing moments, when her grand actress of a certain age shows some ego and enthusiasm: “That was Grotowski, that was pure Stella Adler!” she cries after an encounter with Howard that she feels went particularly well.
But even Mirren is finally forced to lower her eyes shamelessly in sympathy for the plight of another cast member, and Norton does the exact same eye-lowering shame in a later scene. Mirren, alas, is also called upon to say the title of this movie out loud at a crucial moment in the narrative.
“Collateral Beauty” is certainly a case of outright sentimental damage, not beauty, but of course the word collateral also means money that can be bargained with, and hopefully that’s what the ill-fated cast of this picture received in some abundance.