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Will Smith returns to serious-actor mode in "Collateral Beauty," a horribly contrived drama about the ripple effects of one man's grief.
Smith plays Howard, formerly a hotshot New York advertising executive who has lost the will to function after the death to cancer of his 6-year-old daughter. Howard spends his days in his glass-walled office, building elaborate constructions of dominoes that he then knocks over a symbol of life's fragility and unpredictability, in a movie that pounds you over the head with its symbolism.
His colleagues business partner Whit (Edward Norton), work wife Claire (Kate Winslet) and financial officer Simon (Michael Peña) worry for his well-being and that of the company, which is losing clients and will only be saved if Howard agrees to the firm being sold. They hire a private detective (Ann Dowd), who learns Howard has written and mailed angry letters to the abstract concepts of Love, Time and Death.
When Whit runs into three actors in rehearsal on a play, he has an idea: Hire these actors to assume the roles of those abstract concepts and surprise Howard by responding in person to his letters. Elderly Brigitte (Helen Mirren) takes on the role of Death, ingenue Amy (Keira Knightley) will portray Love and headstrong Raffi (Jacob Latimore) will play Time.
And, because screenwriter Allan Loeb ("The Dilemma") can't overwork his metaphor enough, each of Howard's friends also is coping with a problem linked to those abstractions. Simon, who coaches Brigitte on Death, is battling a recurrence of cancer. Claire, who discusses Time with Raffi, hears her biological clock ticking. And Whit, who coordinates the plan with Amy aka Love, has gone through a divorce that has alienated his 10-year-old daughter, Allison (Kylie Rogers).
Once the plan goes into action, Howard starts doubting his sanity and seeks refuge in a support group for grieving parents. There he encounters Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who recalls the advice she was given when her child died to look for the "collateral beauty" left in that child's wake.
Director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada," "Marley & Me") gives everything a burnished glow and captures lovely images of New York at Christmastime. Oh, did I mention this was all happening over the holidays? That's just another component of the Dickens-lite magical realism this movie so brazenly tries to copy.
Smith is saddled with a scenario in "Collateral Beauty" that's as morose and ridiculous as the one in his 2008 weepie "Seven Pounds" and, as then, he manages to make his character's suffering the one genuine part of the story. His mix of rage and self-imploding sadness has an authenticity the rest of this shamelessly manipulative drama can't come close to achieving.
Will Smith works out his grief, with some too-literal sparring partners, in this contrived tear-jerker.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 16.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
Running time • 97 minutes.