[Screen It]


(2016) (Will Smith, Edward Norton) (PG-13)

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Drama: Faced with losing contracts stemming from their colleague's lack of interest -- due to the man's six-year-old daughter having died two years ago -- a trio of ad executives try to prove his mental incompetency by hiring three actors to confront him as figures representing time, love, and death.
Howard Inlet (WILL SMITH) was once the star player of the New York City-based advertising firm he co-owns with his friend, Whit Yardsham (EDWARD NORTON). But in the two years since the death of his 6-year-old daughter, Howard has become a ghost of his former self. He's disconnected from the rest of the world at home, while he does nothing but build elaborate domino runs at work. The latter has resulted in his clients jumping ship, something that isn't sitting well with Whit or the rest of his executive team comprised of Claire Wilson (KATE WINSLET) and Simon Scott (MICHAEL PENA).

Since Howard controls sixty percent of the company, they can't sell their firm to another, so Whit has hired private eye Sally Price (ANN DOWD) to document Howard's daily life in the hopes that they'll be able to prove he's no longer mentally competent to control the company. Sally reports that he sits at the dog park for hours each day despite not owning a dog, can't bring himself to join a grief support group run by Madeleine (NAOMIE HARRIS) who also lost her child at the age of six, and has written letters to Love, Time and Death to complain about his loss.

That's not quite enough for Whit to work with, but when he runs into a young actress, Aimee (KEIRA KNIGHTLEY), at a casting call, he follows her back to her small theater with an idea. He proposes to her and her two acting companions, Brigitte (HELEN MIRREN) and Raffi (JACOB LATIMORE), that they portray the characters of Love, Death and Time and confront Howard about the letters he wrote them. The goal is to have Sally record these interactions on video and then digitally erase the actors to make him appear to be talking to no one.

But as the actors go about their jobs, they also interact with the three executives and bring out issues they're facing. That includes Claire having sacrificed work in place of having a family of her own; Simon dealing with an illness that's returned and that he's kept secret from his wife and child; and Whit having an estranged relationship with his young daughter, Allison (KYLIE ROGERS), the result of him having an affair in the past that ended his marriage to Allison's mother.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Since most critics groups announce their winners in December and January, studios go out of their way to give us access to their award hopefuls. There are special screenings set up, screeners sent out and access given to special screening links, all in hopes of having us vote for their offerings.

Occasionally, various high profile flicks barely make the cut-off time for voting, while it's not unusual for a few not to be shown at all. Sometimes that's because the film isn't finished yet, and at others it's because such movies were never intended to be contenders and instead exist just to be viewer escapism vehicles.

But then you have the so-called Oscar bait pictures that certainly seem earmarked for contention based on the big star or stars in the film and the subject matter. When they're not offered up for award consideration voting, you automatically know something is amiss.

Such is the case with "Collateral Beauty." It's the tale of an ad executive who's lost in his bereavement following the death of his six-year-old daughter as well as the efforts by his concerned and anxious fellow company officers to show he's mentally incompetent to continue running their failing company.

It certainly sounds like a profound flick perhaps with courtroom and psychoanalytic elements thrown into the mix. And considering it stars Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Michael Pena and others, it would certainly seem to be poised for a slam dunk or at least layup come awards time, yes?

Sadly, the answer is no as it misses the basket in what amounts to a cinematic air ball. While the performances are generally okay, most of the actors don't get a lot of help from screenwriter Allan Loeb's plotting or dialogue, while director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada," "Marley & Me") can't seem to decide on the overall tone and thus the film feels all over the board as it plays out over its mercifully short 90-some minutes.

The gist is Smith's character was once a shining and optimistic leader of a New York City ad firm giving wisdom to his employees. That includes an early scene of him telling them that the three core elements that connect everyone are love, time and death.

Fast forward three years later and he looks noticeably older and haggard as he tips over a domino to start an unstoppable cascade of falling tiles and collapsing of carefully constructed structures. Yes, the symbolism is of the hit you over the head variety, and his co-executives (played by Norton, Winslet, and Pena) are concerned since his zombie-like obsession with nothing beyond domino chains has put their business in a nosedive toward self-destruction.

The only problem is that he owns sixty percent of the company, so those executives hatch a plan to document his mental incompetence to run the company and hire a private eye (Ann Dowd) to get dirt on him. Among the seemingly juicy (albeit illegally obtained) evidence she finds is that he's written and mailed letters to -- yes, you may have guessed it -- Love, Time and Death to rail against their treatment of him.

Realizing that's not quite enough, Norton's character then arranges for three actors (Mirren, Knightly and Jacob Latimore) to portray those "figures" and have them confront him about said letters, have the investigator capture that on video, and then digitize out the performers to make it appear as if he's talking to no one, thus proving his mental state.

It's sort of a creepy and mean idea, but Frankel and Loeb play that in a light and sometimes comical vein. All of which ends up battling and undermining the more serious aspects and themes of the film, such as when the protagonist eventually joins a grief support group (run by Naomie Harris) but still can't bring himself to talk about his late daughter.

At the same time, our three actors -- when not doing a variation of the old "Christmas Carol" routine on him -- each pick one of the executives and give them advice about problems in their own lives, such as Norton's character having a young daughter (Kylie Rogers) who hates him over a past affair leading to her parents' divorce.

I don't know if a few (or a lot) more passes through the script rewrite process could have improved this, but there's no denying that the jarring tonal shifts and less than subtle greeting card sentiments and platitudes don't do the film any favors. And that includes a late in the game twist that's supposed to be profound, but feels just as artificial as the rest of the flick. Proving that a mid-award season release and a cast of notable and talented stars doesn't necessarily equal Oscar quality, "Collateral Beauty" has its heart in the right place, but not its execution. It rates no better than a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 12, 2016 / Posted December 16, 2016

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