DI­REC­TOR David Frankel CAST Will Smith, Ed­ward Nor­ton, Kate Winslet, Keira Knight­ley, Michael Peña, Naomie Har­ris, He­len Mir­ren, Ja­cob La­ti­more

PLOT Still mourn­ing his daugh­ter three years after her death, ad exec Howard (Smith) pens let­ters to Love, Death and Time, con­cepts that de­fine his work life. In­ter­cept­ing the mail, his col­leagues (Nor­ton, Winslet, Peña) hire ac­tors to em­body the three ab­stracts to shake their boss from his stu­por.

IF YOU SUB­TRACTED the A-list stars (say, swap Will Smith for Steve Gut­ten­berg) and big-bud­get stu­dio sheen, Col­lat­eral Beauty might feel at home on Chan­nel 5 around 3pm. Played out in a twinkly New York, its high-con­cept idea — a griev­ing man is taught life lessons by in­car­na­tions of Death, Time and Love — and pen­chant for greet­ing-card sen­ti­ments sug­gests a tale of schmaltz that would play per­fectly in a pre-neigh­bours slot. Yet David Frankel’s film never re­ally hits the broad emo­tional spots (let alone the nu­anced ones), partly be­cause it trades in a glossy sense of the solemn and partly be­cause it never cre­ates a story world that uni­fies its mix­ture of Dick­en­sian fan­tasy, be­reave­ment drama, soap opera and New York life. It’s slick, with a smat­ter­ing of de­cent per­for­mances, but ul­ti­mately un­done by sledge­ham­mer lev­els of sub­tlety.

The movie is at its most en­gag­ing in its open­ing stretch, when play­ing out its scam of three ac­tors em­body­ing no­tions of Love (Knight­ley), Time (La­ti­more) and Death (Mir­ren) to force griev­ing ad exec Howard In­let (Smith) into feel­ing some­thing. This is in­ter­cut with Howard’s stut­ter­ing at­tempts to join a be­reave­ment group, led by Madeleine (a warm, ap­peal­ing Har­ris). As Howard’s story moves on, Al­lan Loeb’s screen­play me­chan­i­cally uses the Madeleine sto­ry­line as a yard­stick to mea­sure how the three ab­stracts are bring­ing him back to life. How these two sto­ry­lines ul­ti­mately co­a­lesce is both the film’s big­gest re­veal and dampest squib.

If it is not enough that the three muses at­tempt to ‘cure’ Howard, they are also work­ing to re­ju­ve­nate the lives of their pay­mas­ters. Nor­ton’s Whit is strug­gling to con­nect with his daugh­ter (like all mod­ern NY dads, he of­fers to buy her tick­ets to Hamil­ton) after an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair — so he gets to spend time with Love; Peña’s Si­mon is dy­ing of a ter­mi­nal dis­ease he won’t di­vulge to his fam­ily — so he is forced to con­front Death; Winslet’s Claire has given up a chance at chil­dren and fam­ily life in favour of work (we only know this be­cause she end­lessly looks at adop­tion web­sites) — so she hangs out with Time. It’s pro­gram­matic and heavy-handed stuff, en­livened by the likes of Nor­ton (who shares good chem­istry with Knight­ley), Winslet and Peña. Frankel, ca­pa­ble of the sub­lime (The Devil

Wears Prada), the cute­sie (Mar­ley & Me) and the for­get­table (The Big Year), of­fers touches of con­fi­dent craft (each of the ab­stracts emerges out of beau­ti­ful soft fo­cus) amid Domino­top­pling Sym­bol­ism. The qual­ity sup­port­ing cast add colours to thin char­ac­ters and cod phi­los­o­phy (“Time is a stub­born il­lu­sion”): best in show is Mir­ren who, es­pe­cially early on, has fun as a true thesp, cit­ing act­ing guru Stella Adler and wor­ry­ing about her re­views from Howard.

If the open­ing scene of Howard ral­ly­ing his troops is pure Hitch, the rest of the movie is Smith in Seven Pounds mis­er­ab­list mode. He is som­no­lent through the en­tire movie, never re­ally sug­gest­ing Howard’s in­ner life or an­guish. Taken along­side A New York’s Win­ter’s Tale, Smith clearly has a jones to make a heart­warm­ing NYC tale. On this ev­i­dence, it’s a shame he has lit­tle idea how to de­liver it. VER­DICT In a month of A Mon­ster Calls and Manch­ester By The Sea, Col­lat­eral Beauty serves up a hol­low por­trait of grief. De­spite its qual­ity cast and slick vi­su­als, the re­sult is som­bre and sac­cha­rine rather than up­lift­ing.

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