It asks a lot of an audience to sit through a drama about a parent grieving over the loss of a child. The subject is rough — and beyond that, it has a vast potential for programmed pathos and fake sentiment. That’s part of the miracle of “Manchester by the Sea.” It leads us through one man’s life of locked-in sorrow with a sculptured emotional elegance that is never false; at the same time, the cathartic honesty of its journey allows the audience to touch a nerve of desolation and still breathe free. So it’s telling, in a way, that in an awards season that’s been tilting away from major-studio releases and toward independent works like “Manchester,” along comes “Collateral Beauty,” the big soppy whimsical lump-in-the-throat commercial version of a drama of parental grief. It feels like a Hollywood awards movie from 30 years ago, laced with the kind of four-hankie strategies — hugs, buckets of tears, New Age greeting-card sentiments — that “Manchester” transcended. By the end of “Collateral Beauty,” you’d have to have a heart of stone for the film not to get to you a bit, but even if it does, you may still feel like you’ve been played.
The movie opens with Will Smith, in vintage Will Smith mode — brash, ageless, a superhero of confidence — giving a motivational speech to the New York advertising agency he owns and presides over, but then, moments later, the image of Smith literally melts three years ahead. Smith’s Howard, now haggard and morose, with thinning gray hair, has stopped talking to anyone. The closest he comes to a constructive activity is setting up intricate arrays of multi-colored dominoes in his office, which he then lets topple as if to demonstrate an existential law: Whatever you create is destined to come falling down.
Howard, we learn, lost his six-year-old daughter to cancer, and the agony imprisons and consumes him daily. He rides his bike against the New York traffic. He writes letters — not to other human beings, but to the spirits of Death, Love, and Time. He sleeps six or seven hours a week. He’s a zombie, a man who has left life utterly behind. Yet there’s something undeniably a little Will Smithian about his suffering. He’s like the Olympic world champion of Holding It All Inside, and Smith — unlike, you know, Casey Affleck — doesn’t give off bitter waves of doubt or dysfunction. The message is that Howard can’t recover because his love is that pure and strong. He’s holding onto his grief because he’s holding onto his love. He won’t lead an existence that compromises it.
He’d likely stay that way were it not for his trusty trio of executive partners, played by Edward Norton (divorced and broke, with a daughter who resents him), Kate Winslet (a workaholic who waited too long to start a family), and Michael Peña (who’s got one of those tell-tale coughs — ’nuff said). They’ve decided to sell the faltering agency so they can receive a large payout, which each of them is in dire need of. A company called OmniCom is offering $17 a share — but Howard won’t even have a conversation about it. And so, out of desperation more than disloyalty, the three decide to cut him out of the deal by recording evidence that he is mentally unsound.
How, exactly, will they manage that? By hiring a trio of actors from a local theater company to impersonate — you guessed it — Death, Love, and Time. The actors are played by a sprightly Helen Mirren, a saucy Keira Knightley, and a TV-gentle street-smart Jacob Latimore. All three stalk Howard in public places, starting with Mirren’s Brigitte, who takes on the role of Death. She sits down with Howard on a park bench and quotes from his letter, and she’s just impish and knowing enough to suck this devastated man into the illusion that he’s talking to a metaphysical sprite. The other two, following suit, become his self-help recovery gurus (Knightley is Love, and Latimore is Time), dispensing platitudes and soft-hearted philosophical nuggets. That includes the film’s title, a phrase whose supposedly soothing meaning gets explained several times, though it may still leave you scratching your head.
What do you get when you cross “Manchester by the Sea” with “Touched by an Angel”? A strenuously uplifting Christmas awards-bait tearjerker. “Collateral Beauty” was directed by David Frankel, who has sometimes brought his work a real snap (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”), but this time, working from a script by Allan Loeb, he falls into a treacly zone of wan cute “feeling.” I’ve long thought that Helen Mirren doesn’t have a cloying bone in her body, but there are moments here where she’s a little too adorably elfin. The trouble with “Collateral Beauty,” though, isn’t the actors. It’s the movie itself, which keeps piling on the devices until it becomes top-heavy. A decade ago, in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith proved he had the stuff to make a down-and-out character stingingly authentic, but in “Collateral Beauty,” when he gets all red-rimmed and teary, it feels like the actor’s showcase it is, because the film’s whole experience of suffering is engineered. Instead of using its metaphysical-deception plot as a conduit to genuine emotion, it just pushes the gimmickry further, suggesting that there’s a secret reason why Mirren, Knightley, and Latimore are so good at leading Smith’s wounded hero to a better place.
There’s one other major character, the head of a support group for grieving parents, played by Naomie Harris, who’s as serene and comforting here as she is distressed in “Moonlight.” She and Smith create a real connection, but it’s part of the design of “Collateral Beauty” that no encounter can be free of its place in the grand scheme. That’s supposed to be what makes the movie satisfying, and on some prefab level it works, but there’s something suspect about a drama of broken lives that snaps together this neatly.