With its cast of Oscar-caliber actors and pervasive theme of loss, "Collateral Beauty" should have been a deeply moving tear-jerker. Instead, it comes off as a melodramatic contrivance.
It's unfortunate — not just because it's a waste of an incredibly talented ensemble, but because the film has a worthy goal: highlighting the human need for connection by exploring universal concepts of love, death and time. But it undermines itself by mixing in greedy manipulation, a forced magical element and a painfully precious ending that makes any meaningful message evaporate before the closing credits roll.
Will Smith is Howard, the once-gregarious leader of a big, successful advertising firm. He's charismatic and inspirational, plying his staff with such platitudes as "We are here to connect" and "Life is about people." He tells them that everyone on Earth is motivated by the longing for love, the wish for more time and the fear of death.
But Howard withdraws into depression and isolation after his young daughter dies. Instead of leading his company, he spends his working hours silently building and collapsing domino towers. When he's not at work, he despondently rides his bike into New York City traffic and sits alone in a bare apartment.
This, of course, is bad for the bottom line, which is the main concern for Howard's closest colleagues, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena). Because Howard is the company's main shareholder, the other three can't make moves without him.
At first, they reach out in friendship. Claire brings food over to Howard's apartment; Whit tries to have a heart-to-heart with his friend. When those attempts fail, though, they resort to more devious means. They decide to spy on their boss and prey on his grief-ridden instability. If they can prove Howard has become incompetent, they can override his authority.
They hire a detective, who finds that Howard has been sending letters addressed to Love, Time and Death. So his colleagues decide to trick him by hiring actors to play human apparitions of those concepts who will respond to Howard in person. By filming these encounters and editing out the actors, Whit, Claire and Simon will have evidence of Howard's incompetence.
There are no consequences for this unbelievably heartless act in Allan Loeb's screenplay. When one of the actors mentions an ethical concern, the others mention money.
Helen Mirren is a kind-eyed Death in a bright blue coat. Jacob Latimore plays Time as an angry skate punk. Kiera Knightley is Love, who's quick to cry and makes such trite declarations as "I am the reason for everything" and "I'm the only why."
When Howard believes the apparitions are real, the actors take it as an endorsement of their talents. Does no one here have any empathy?
Even this stellar cast can't make such selfish sneakiness jibe with idea of "collateral beauty." (What is that, anyway?)
And though Howard is grief-stricken, nothing about his character suggests he'd be so gullible, especially when he later reveals profound insights about Whit, Claire and Simon's own personal struggles.
The only bright spot in the story is Howard's relationship with Madeleine (a luminous Naomie Harris), who runs a grief-support group for parents who've lost children.
Love, time and death are forever ripe for artistic exploration, but director David Frankel and his all-star cast miss the mark with "Collateral Beauty."
"Collateral Beauty," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements and brief strong language." Running time: 97 minutes. One star out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is at www.twitter.com/APSandy .