Moments of skillfully played sentiment get tangled with regrettable contrivances in the Will Smith-anchored ensemble drama “Collateral Beauty,” a fantastical portrait of grief that’s not quite as profound as it aspires to be. Seeing Smith go deep opposite Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, and Edward Norton should be cause for excitement. It’s frustrating that the impressive cast is instead squandered on far-fetched story developments and telegraphed pathos.
Smith is Howard, a Madison Avenue ad exec who’s got a poet’s eloquence, but whose inspirational voice goes quiet following the death of his young daughter. His worried friends and partners (Norton, Winslet, and Michael Pena) can’t even get him to communicate about mundane work matters, never mind sharing his heartbreak. A welcoming support-group leader (Naomie Harris) has no luck, either.
Howard wanders his office like a ghost, silently building elaborate domino constructs, toppling them, then punching out to go despondently ride his bike into oncoming traffic. Throughout, Smith’s choked expressiveness plays like a thematic bookend to his emotionally tormented crash survivor in the 2008 drama “Seven Pounds.”
Howard finds one outlet, at least, in bitter, soul-bearing letters he writes — and posts — to Death, Love, and Time. (The snippets we hear betray some of the script’s slightness: “Time, they say you heal all wounds . . .”) The missives are strictly therapeutic, of course — until an involved chain of events leads to Howard actually getting in-person replies from these big three abstractions (in the form of sprightly Mirren, earthy Keira Knightley, and attitudinal Jacob Latimore, respectively).
It’s some twist that director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) lays on us, but we can roll with it. What’s narratively bonkers is that Howard’s work pals are secretly documenting his metaphysical confabs to use against him. They feel just awful about it, but what else is to be done to save the agency? (Um, want a list?)
The movie compounds the problem by working extra hard to make its schemers sympathetic. Seems they’ve got various Death-Love-Time issues of their own, as hinted none too subtly by, say, Winslet’s melancholy search of sperm donor websites while she’s sitting in her glass-walled office.
“Collateral Beauty” is too well-meaning and too infused with genuine poignancy from Smith and Harris for the film to be dismissed as just a trigger for our snark reflex. But it’s a shame that the tears Smith sheds aren’t serving a better conceived story.
Directed by David Frankel. Written by Allen Loeb. Starring Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 97 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, brief strong language).
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.