Lawrence Toppman

‘Collateral Beauty’ goes out on an emotional limb

A grief counselor (Naomie Harris) advises a dad who has lost a child (Will Smith) in “Collateral Beauty.”
A grief counselor (Naomie Harris) advises a dad who has lost a child (Will Smith) in “Collateral Beauty.” TNS

The best thing about reading a local critic is consistency: You get to know when he’s on target and when he’s off the beam, when you can place faith in him and when you can’t.

Take emotional fantasies that star Will Smith. Eight years ago, I warmed to “Seven Pounds” more than most critics and wrote “It will have half your brain asking ‘How could this be?’ and the other half saying ‘Shut up and go along for the ride!’ Listen to the latter voice.”

If you agreed, trust me about “Collateral Beauty.” Many critics will complain about emotional manipulation, but I share Roger Ebert’s view: “Some people like to be emotionally manipulated. I do, when it’s done well.” I think “Beauty” does it well.

Smith plays Howard, head of an advertising agency that begins to collapse after his daughter dies. He goes into an emotional coma as accounts disappear but refuses to sell the company. So long-time associates Whit, Claire and Simon (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña) reluctantly concoct a plan.

After Howard mails bitterly therapeutic letters to “Time,” “Death” and “Love,” they hire unemployed actors to embody these beings. Then they pay a private detective to get video of him talking to the “mythical” figures; when the actors are removed from it, Howard will seem crazy, and the board of directors can declare him incompetent.

Each associate pairs with an actor who, not coincidentally, provides sound advice. Time (Jacob Latimore) counsels Claire about the slowing of her body clock; Love (Keira Knightley) leads Whit to repair his relationship with an estranged daughter; Death (Helen Mirren) helps cancer-ridden Simon face the inevitable. Meanwhile, Howard slowly revives through grieving sessions run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris).

Allan Loeb’s script has bookends I couldn’t swallow. At the beginning, Howard declares, “Advertising is about illuminating how our products and services can improve people lives.” It’s mostly about encouraging us to buy things we don’t need, but I suppose this has to be the idea if your hero creates ad campaigns. And the interaction of Howard and Madeleine, so touching most of the way, becomes nonsensical at the end.

The rest went down easily, because the actors never falter. Director David Frankel directs efficiently and without repetition. Death and Time and Love don’t offer utterly new insights – how could they, after millennia of philosophers’ writings? – but express truths that are always worth hearing.

Most movies today remind us dates in high school are hard to come by, superheroes can beat up aliens, or serial killers are scary dudes. A movie that wisely contemplates how to deal with profound sadness deserves our respect for that alone.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

“Collateral Beauty”

Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore.

Director: David Frankel.

Length: 97 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements and brief strong language).

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