There comes a point in “Collateral Beauty,” an unconscionably tidy therapy-by-numbers exercise, when Howard (Will Smith), a New York advertising executive whose 6-year-old daughter has died, attends a support group for grieving parents. The death of a child may be an overused plot device in movies — and not all movies are as sensitive in this regard as, say, “Manchester by the Sea” — but for a moment, your expectations are briefly buoyed even as your heart slowly sinks.
A support group, after all, is meant to provide a sacred communal space for honesty and reflection, where traumas can be shared safely and tears shed without apology. Some direct, confrontational melodrama, you think, might be just the thing for this guy as well as this emotionally hesitant, excessively calculating movie. Instead, for reasons that professional scruples demand that I leave unspoiled — even though basic human decency in some ways compels me to do the opposite — you are likely to look back at this scene and remember it as the moment when “Collateral Beauty” lost you completely.
If it hadn’t already, that is. Every 10 minutes or so, there seems to be a fresh reason to head for the exit: a character’s violent coughing fit followed by an ominously abrupt cutaway. Kate Winslet wasted in a role you expect to see listed in the credits as “Emotionally Unfulfilled Career Woman.” A child so brattily entitled and badly written, you almost wish she would switch places with Howard’s daughter in the Great Beyond.
Sorry, that’s a horrible thing to say. Almost as horrible as “You’re dead tissue that won’t decompose,” which is what Howard, nearly catatonic with grief, writes in a letter that he addresses, simply, to “Time.” This and two other missives, addressed to “Death” and “Love,” are intercepted by his longtime colleagues — Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) — who are starting to fear for his mental well-being, not to mention the impending company sale that might be jeopardized as a result.
As the holidays draw near, they come up with a doozy of a plan: Hire three actors to play Time, Death and Love and have them confront Howard in public. The result, hopefully, will be a kind of boldly therapeutic performance art that will either draw him out of his shell or provide them with indisputable evidence that he no longer is fit to lead.
Amy (Keira Knightley), the actress chosen to play Love, has enough of a conscience to acknowledge the moral bankruptcy of this scheme, though her fellow thespians, Brigitte/Death (Helen Mirren) and Raffi/Time (Jacob Latimore), are too cash-strapped to object. Certainly no amount of shame or self-respect will keep “Collateral Beauty” from foisting its own dubious con on the audience. For the price of a movie ticket, its tear-jerking little nuggets of Christmas catharsis can also be yours.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a movie that compartmentalizes its emotions and dishes them out like stocking stuffers. Nor is it offensive or surprising when Howard’s friends turn out to need counsel and healing as much as he does. Simon gradually opens up to Brigitte about the devastating secret he’s been keeping from his family. When Claire isn’t hanging with Raffi, she spends hours perusing sperm banks online. Whit, a serial flirt, keeps trying to charm the socks off Amy, no doubt angling for a little collateral booty.
What dooms the movie, in the end, isn’t its maudlin sentimentality or its workmanlike direction by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”), who applies the kind of easy-viewing, easy-listening holiday aesthetic that begs to be accompanied by your Starbucks peppermint-infused beverage of choice. It’s that the material shows just enough self-awareness — from its ad-agency setting to its characters’ openly venal behavior — to suggest that “Collateral Beauty” might actually recognize its inherent phoniness, or dodge the manipulative traps that it has spent nearly 90 minutes carefully setting up.
No such luck. Howard finds a measure of solace with another grieving parent, Madeleine (Naomie Harris), but otherwise whiles away the hours building elaborate domino-line structures. Are they a symbol of his emotional fragility and inevitable collapse? A metaphor for Allan Loeb’s ridiculously over-constructed screenplay? Howard isn’t saying. But Smith’s performance, a dour symphony of glum expressions, silent head shakes and choked-back sobs, may remind you at times of “Seven Pounds,” his earlier misbegotten excursion into grotesque, quasi-spiritual uplift.
Despite a few closing scenes that must be seen to be disbelieved, “Collateral Beauty” doesn’t sink to that film’s appalling depths — which is another way of saying that in some ways, it fails to live up to its own terrible potential. This movie doesn’t rise to the level of so-bad-it’s-good. But no less impressively, perhaps, it’s just bad enough that you actually wish it were worse.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In general release