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‘Collateral Beauty’ pretty terrible

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Once upon a time, Will Smith was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, part of that small cadre of actors who could bring big box office through little more than the virtue of their name. Will Smith was one of those guys.

Sadly, he is definitely not that guy anymore.

“Collateral Beauty” is another nail in Will Smith’s movie star coffin, an earnest and well-meaning failure of a film that can’t transcend its own baseline maudlin mediocrity despite an absolutely dynamite cast. It is an odd blend of flippant and sincere filled with tonal miscues and a host of talented actors looking a bit stunned at how it’s all falling apart around them.

Smith stars as Howard, the co-founder of a company that is apparently very successful doing something like … marketing? I guess? It’s all rather vague. He’s the creative genius behind the whole thing – his best friend and partner Whit (Edward Norton, “Sausage Party”) is the nuts-and-bolts guy.

But when tragedy strikes Howard’s personal life, he falls apart. And as he goes, so goes the company. He refuses to communicate, spending his days building elaborate domino displays in his office. This leads Whit – along with colleagues Claire (Kate Winslet, “Triple 9”) and Simon (Michael Pena, “War on Everyone”) – to try and figure out a way to sell the company before Howard drives it out of business.

They hire a private investigator to determine Howard’s competence regarding the vote for the sale; she discovers that Howard has written letters to the abstract concepts of Love, Time and Death (for reasons that are baldly presented in the film’s first few minutes).

Whit, Claire and Simon come up with a (contrived and utterly ridiculous) plan, enlisting the help of three actors – Brigitte (Helen Mirren, “Trumbo”), Amy (Kiera Knightley, “Everest”) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore, “Sleight”) – to answer the letters in person as Death, Love and Time respectively. The PI will surreptitiously film these encounters and then subsequently edit the actors out, leaving Howard speaking to nothing like a crazy person.

(See what I mean? Just a ludicrous plan on every level.)

But of course, since each of the three has their own mounting concerns about Love (Whit), Time (Claire) and Death (Simon), the actors help them too. And Howard is left to slowly try and figure out a way to move beyond his past tragedy and start embracing the overwhelming basic concepts he so passionately espoused at the beginning of the film.

Seriously - it’s all about as subtle as a tear-soaked brick.

“Collateral Beauty” could not be more transparent in its efforts toward emotional manipulation. The ham-fisted efforts at character development are so on the nose as to be painful. The narrative plainly telegraphs every move with an indifferent laziness. And in a cast filled with likable performers, there’s not a single character to like. Pity, sure – but not like.

Smith might not be at his peak anymore, but he can still bring flashes of the old charisma. Unfortunately, what we have here is sad and broken Will Smith – the Will Smith that gets trotted out whenever he wants to remind us that he’s a capital-S Serious artist. In the past, he’s been able to get away with this kind of sentimental claptrap thanks to that charisma and half-decent writing. Neither applies here. It’s sad piled on top of sad without even the slightest nuance.

The rest of the cast fares little better. Norton, Blanchett and Pena all come off as though they were given one single solitary note regarding their character and then left to wander around the set until the movie was done. None of them manage to reconcile their supposed friendships with their can’t-be-stressed-enough-terrible plan, though they all try to some extent.

And the acting trio? Helen Mirren gamely tries to polish this turd, but she’s merely a renowned and talented actress, not a magician. Every time Knightley appears on screen, she looks like she’s just smelled the aforementioned turd. Latimore, on the other hand, is clearly thrilled to be on this team and sports an “I don’t even care that it’s a turd” vibe.

Frankly, it borders on travesty to put together a cast like this one and waste it on this manipulative dumpster fire of a film. Whatever director David Frankel and screenwriter Allan Loeb were paid – and I assume it was a handsome sum – the studio would have been just as well off if they had simply burned the cash directly.

“Collateral Beauty” plays like a parody of Oscar bait, with overwrought one-note performances wrapped around an earnest, yet stupid central narrative. So if you see it, be advised. You won’t love it. You’ll probably feel like you wasted your time. And you might just wish you were dead.

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