Movies about grief are tricky. Do it right and you get a genuine tearjerker like "Manchester by the Sea." Do it wrong and you get something laughably maudlin like the insipid "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close;" or worse, the latest gusher of treacle, "Collateral Beauty." It stars Will Smith, and you know the situation is dire because his character barely speaks until halfway through. And we all know how much Will Smith likes to talk. He was even loquacious as the last man on Earth in "I Am Legend." If that doesn't convince you his Howard is seriously bummed by a death in the family, director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") drives home the point with dozens of shots of Howard riding his bike intensely through the streets of Manhattan -- never once getting clobbered by a taxi. And when Howard isn't pumping his legs furiously, he's setting up elaborate structures built of dominos, or writing letters to Santa Claus. Just kidding about the latter. That would be a silly way for a 48-year-old advertising whiz to spend the day. So he pens missives to Time, Love and Death instead.
Guess what. Like St. Nick, they come down his chimney to visit him. OK, not the chimney, but they do drop by one-by-one to bestow sappy platitudes like something out of a touchy-feely version of "A Christmas Carol." But there's a twist, the first of many -- most of them stupid -- in a WTF script by Allan Loeb ("Things We Lost in the Fire") that leaves you constantly scratching your head. And that is that the intrepid trio is played by actors hired by three of Howard's co-workers, Whit (Edward Norton), Simon (Michael Pena) and Claire (Kate Winslet). They see their buddy in trouble, and try to help him by -- tricking Howard into thinking he's insane so he'll sign over his collapsing ad agency to a giant corporation. As they say, that's what friends are for, right? Ready for another twist? How about Whit, Simon and Claire finding a cure for something lacking in their lives from Love (Keira Knightley) aka Amy; Death (Helen Mirren), aka Brigitte; and Time (Jacob Latimore) aka Raffi, respectively? Could the gods -- or Loeb -- aligned the stars (literally in this case) any better? Well, frankly, yes. He could have presented them with gifts of a believable plot and better dialogue. He also could have cut back on the twists, especially a real eye-roller involving a grief counselor ("Moonlight's" Naomi Harris) that arrives late in the movie.
Despite all the problems with its structure, characterizations and clunky lines like, "You are dead tissue that won't decompose," you could find worse ways to waste 95 minutes. And that's all due to the actors not named Smith. Norton is fun, even when his Whit is asked to milk a conversation with his senile mother for laughs. He also shares nice chemistry with Knightley. But the film's best pairing is Mirren and Pena, who provide the film with its lone source of from-the-heart feeling. His Simon is dying, and who better to confide in than Death? They keep you watching, but they're persistently undermined by endless scenes of Smith moping. We're a long way from the "Men in Black" Smith who boasted about how he makes shades look good.
Here, he makes everything look bad -- and depressing. Everybody grieves differently, but his Howard grieves like no human in existence. It's all manufactured, which is in keeping with a script that's as far removed from reality as you can possibly get. And I don't mean that in an "It's a Wonderful Life" way. I mean that in a way that I'm not buying a second of these cardboard characters or their inhuman machinations. For the filmmakers, it's all about pandering. And for this group of outstanding actors it's a colossal waste of their time, like a molecular scientist working at McDonalds. They're "Collateral Beauty's" collateral damage. And your heart breaks for them, but never for their pre-fab characters.
Cast includes Will Smith, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris and Michael Pena.
(PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.)