movies: “Col­lat­eral Beauty” moves, ma­nip­u­lates.

Stel­lar cast can’t save story

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Stephanie Merry

To watch “Col­lat­eral Beauty” is to feel both moved and ma­nip­u­lated. If there are tears, they’ll be prac­ti­cally squeezed out of you by a tragic plot de­vice: the death of a lit­tle girl.

That girl’s fa­ther, Howard (Will Smith), is the man at the cen­ter of the story. Two years af­ter the loss, he’s still strug­gling to cope with his grief. Once the charis­matic pres­i­dent of an ad agency, an up­beat man who gave his em­ploy­ees TED-like pep talks, he now spends his days care­fully con­struct­ing in­tri­cate domino dis­plays, only to — metaphor alert — knock them all down.

Liv­ing alone in a min­i­mal­ist New York apart­ment, Howard doesn’t eat or sleep much, though he has picked up one es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing hobby: He com­poses letters — hand­writ­ten, ad­dressed and ac­tu­ally mailed — to such to ab­stract con­cepts as Love, Time and Death.

These letters would, no doubt, have landed in a post of­fice trash can if Howard’s clos­est friends hadn’t hired a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor to fol­low him. Whit, Claire and Si­mon (Ed­ward Nor­ton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña) also hap­pen to work with Howard, and they have a baldly self-serv­ing rea­son to fol­low him. Sure, they’re wor­ried about him, a lit­tle, but they also want to prove that he’s not men­tally com­pe­tent enough to run the com­pany so that the trio can sell the place and make bank.

In an ap­par­ent ef­fort to soften the ick­i­ness of the schem­ing, the film is also set up so that each char­ac­ter just hap­pens to be deal­ing with his or her own is­sues: Whit is pen­ni­less af­ter a bit­ter di­vorce that has turned his daugh­ter against him; Claire has been mar­ried to her job all these years and laments never start­ing a fam­ily; and Si­mon has a sus­pi­cious cough that won’t go away. Bet­ter get that checked.

Things get even more com­pli­cated when Howard’s “friends” hire three ac­tors, played by Keira Knight­ley, Ja­cob La­ti­more and He­len Mir­ren, to im­per­son­ate Love, Time and Death, and to and con­front Howard about the letters. The du­bi­ous plan is to se­cretly record those in­ter­ac­tions — a de­pressed man hav­ing heated con­ver­sa­tions with ab­stract en­ti­ties — then edit out the ac­tors. Voilà: proof of in­san­ity.

To put it more bluntly, this story doesn’t re­ally make sense. But what’s the point of a plot any­way, when you have ex­treme close-ups of Smith, his blood­shot eyes welling with tears as he thinks back to a sunny af­ter­noon in a park with his daugh­ter (Alyssa Cheatham)? The movie’s ma­nip­u­la­tions are no more sub­tle than those of Howard’s friends — and they’re just as ef­fec­tive. What kind of stone-cold mon­ster wouldn’t get emo­tional watch­ing a fa­ther mourn?

When Smith isn’t on screen, the movie main­tains a sur­pris­ingly breezy tone, given the dark sub­ject mat­ter. The comedic as­pects shouldn’t come as a shock, though, con­sid­er­ing that the movie was writ­ten by Al­lan Loeb, the screen­writer of such come­dies as “Here Comes the Boom” and “Just Go With It.” Mir­ren is es­pe­cially amus­ing as a Bo­hemian artiste who’s de­lighted by the act­ing chal­lenge of play­ing Death. “This is Chekhov,” she says af­ter meet­ing Howard for the first time. Most of the other A-lis­ters, how­ever, aren’t given nearly as much to do.

“Col­lat­eral,” which was di­rected by David Frankel, man­ages to be simultaneously su­per­fi­cial and heart­break­ing. That’s no easy feat — nor is it a laud­able one.

He­len Mir­ren and Will Smith in “Col­lat­eral Beauty.”

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