Friday, December 16, 2016

Collateral Beauty: Only mildly appealing

Collateral Beauty (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for thematic elements and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Overt sentimentality is a tough sell in this cynical era, so director David Frankel is to be congratulated: For the most part, his film manages to be sincerely poignant, without sliding too much into eye-rolling schmaltz.

While trying to finish a quiet, isolated dinner, Howard (Will Smith) is surprised — and
quickly annoyed — to be confronted by the personification of Love (Keira Knightley),
unaware that she's actually an actress hired to deceive him.
Allan Loeb’s original script is an audacious blend of It’s a Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, reconfigured for modern times. That’s risky for all sorts of reasons, most notably because “borrowing” from such beloved classics invites comparisons that make most such endeavors fall short. Whether this update succeeds will be up to each viewer’s tolerance for Frank Capra-style melodrama (known as “Capra-corn,” back in the day).

This also is an unusual effort from a writer best known for slapstick moron comedies such as The Switch, The Dilemma and (God help us) Here Comes the Boom. But Loeb apparently has a more serious side, and he wrestles with some fairly weighty concepts here. It’s easy to see why the result piqued the interest of star Will Smith, who has demonstrated a fondness for holiday-timed melodramas such as The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds.

Smith is very good at morose angst; he suffers persuasively, radiating anguish with an intensity that can be painful to watch. We definitely feel for the guy, in such storylines, and — as a given narrative progresses — we become invested in his search for salvation, closure, relief or whatever else seems just beyond his reach.

He stars here as Howard, a charismatic New York advertising executive with a flair for inspiring both clients and staff. We meet him giving a warm pep talk to the employees of his successful firm: a moment enjoyed equally by his longtime business partners — and friends — Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña).

But that was then. Flash-forward a few years later, as the story actually begins, and personal tragedy — the death of his young daughter — has reduced Howard to a disheveled, morose and perpetually silent shadow of his former self. He shows up to work each day solely to build elaborate domino mazes, ultimately knocking down each creation, then starting another. The business, left without its captain, has been sliding into oblivion.

Whit, Claire and Simon don’t know what to do. Every means of engaging Howard has been ignored or rebuffed, and — because he owns controlling shares of their company — they can’t even act on a friendly takeover offer. (We assume it’s friendly. Loeb’s script is a bit sketchy on certain important details: a failing that becomes more noticeable as the story proceeds.)

Trying to avoid the drastic step of having Howard declared mentally incompetent, his three friends struggle to find some other solution. Whit comes up with an improbable scheme, after they intercept three unusual letters that Howard has written: tormented, angry notes to the three universal concepts that he once insisted — as the means to win clients — are essential to everyone’s life. He penned them during an impulsive moment of fury, addressed to Love, Time and Death.

If they can’t bring Howard back into the real world, Whit suggests, why not try to engage him in his current reality? He wrote enraged notes to Love, Time and Death, so why not have those entities confront him, in an effort to lure him back?

Serendipitously, Whit has just encountered a trio of actors seeking financial sponsorship for their off-off-off-Broadway play: Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore). To their credit, they’re appalled when Whit, Claire and Simon make this outlandish proposal. Amy is particularly incensed, believing it cruel (a point that’s hard to argue).

This is also a crucial moment for viewers. If you can’t get past this premise — and it is asking a lot — then the rest of the film collapses, and you may as well exit the theater.

The three actors eventually agree, for a fat fee; Brigitte — who views herself a diva — actually relishes the notion of playing a role such as Death. And, so, Howard subsequently is visited by these three “entities,” under circumstances designed to enhance the desired illusion (such as Claire pretending not to see Raffi’s Time, when he shows up to chat with Howard in the office).

And, miraculously, the ruse seems successful ... at least, to a degree. Howard does begin to come out of his shell, if only defiantly. Much more importantly, and unbeknownst to everybody else, he finally works up the courage to attend group sessions led by a warmly sympathetic grief counselor (Naomie Harris, as Madeleine).

Alas, at about this point, it becomes obvious that Loeb’s ambitious script has bitten off far more than it can chew. Apparently not satisfied with the dramatic potential of Howard’s situation, Loeb further lards the scenario by giving Whit, Claire and Simon their own crises, allowing each of the actors — in their infinite “thespic wisdom” — to address those, as well.

With varying degrees of success, normatively speaking.

The core story involving Howard holds our attention, due mostly to the earnest, heartfelt performances by Smith and Harris. The three new subplots are trite and superficial, mostly because Norton, Winslet and Peña aren’t given enough material with which to build fully dimensioned characters. We simply don’t care about them; their “issues” aren’t the slightest bit persuasive, and Claire’s “situation” doesn’t even get resolved.

On top of which, everybody can anticipate this story’s Big Reveal, which is telegraphed so blatantly that Western Union should get royalties. (In fairness, a second twist may catch some viewers by surprise.)

Smith’s dominant role aside, Mirren steals the show, even though — by a stopwatch — she isn’t seen that often. Brigitte is lofty, whimsical and archly imperious, like a seasoned drama coach forever trying to coax expressive candor from everybody she encounters. Mirren’s smile and pixie gaze are as radiant as the brilliant blue coat she wears, in one telling scene with Smith. She brings far more verisimilitude to this material, than it probably deserves; were everybody performing at her level, this larkish fantasy could have been much more successful.

Knightley is mischievously effervescent as Amy, whose reluctant participation in this scheme gives her a bit of depth wholly absent in Latimore’s Raffi, who’s no more than a one-dimensional smartass.

I applaud the heartfelt sincerity with which everybody tackled this project, and Loeb makes some strong, perceptive statements about grief and recovery. But if his goal was the sort of third-act epiphany that wholly transformed Ebenezer Scrooge, he falls far short. At an economical 97 minutes, Frankel’s film certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome, but that also isn’t enough time to address all the plot contrivances raised within Loeb’s narrative.

When Howard looks over his shoulder, during his climactic walk in Central Park — granting us the final scene that we knew was coming — the moment may raise a smile, but it isn’t nearly as satisfying as Frankel and Loeb undoubtedly intended.

An oft-quoted stage and movie adage notes that dying is easy, while comedy is hard. Sentiment may be harder still, and — good intentions notwithstanding — Collateral Beauty doesn’t quite get there.

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