Some movies, sometimes entirely by accident and sometimes very much by design, feel like direct responses to other, earlier movies. But while the new Will Smith movie Collateral Beauty does engage, in a way, with the critically acclaimed awards contender Manchester by the Sea, it isn't a strong enough film to feel like any kind of response. Despite coming out later, Collateral Beauty feels like the movie Manchester warned us about — a paean to the grieving process and the human experience and how it all comes together with a healing unity. Manchester basically depicts life in all its messiness, sorrow, and unexpected hilarity, based on the idea that not every tragedy is an opportunity for a healing, redemptive arc. Beauty twists its plot into wild curlicues, desperate to dazzle the audience into a cathartic experience.
That's probably not fair to Collateral Beauty, which does work overtime to provide that experience. Smith plays Howard, a wealthy and successful head of a wealthy and successful ad agency, first seen giving an inspirational speech to his employees about what he calls the "three abstractions" of love, time, and death, as well as the unspoken fourth abstraction: Viewing advertising as a vital part of the human condition. Three years later, Howard is an inexpressive zombie following the death of his six-year-old daughter. Instead of working or living, he performs bizarre rich-guy grieving rituals involving setting up gigantic domino displays and then letting them fall. (Over in Boston, poor Casey Affleck has to keep doing manual labor while he stews in misery.)
Howard's friends and co-workers, a trio played by Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Michael Pena, fear losing their company, and through a nonsensical turn of events, they're convinced that the best way to address this is to hire actors played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore to play personifications of Death, Love, and Time, respectively — answering the angry letters Howard has been writing to them when he's not workshopping Domino Rally courses or staring off into space. His friends also hire a private detective to shoot video of Howard interacting with these "abstractions," digitally remove the actors, and make Howard appear crazy to his board, a plan that is actually vastly more crazy than anything Howard is glimpsed doing in this movie. (For that matter, Howard spends the rest of his time silently staring into space, refusing any kind of real communication and not doing any work at all, which seems like it might suffice for illustrating how unfit he is to run this company. Then again, after 30 or 40 minutes with Collateral Beauty, nothing that involves digitally removing actors from badly staged footage sounds all that crazy.) Yes, this is an uplifting secular-spiritual drama about elaborate corporate gaslighting, which at least the movie admits during one of its spectacularly terrible passages of dialogue.
These interactions do force Howard out of his exile from the world, as he makes a tentative step into a grieving-parent support group hosted by Madeleine (Naomie Harris). Meanwhile, the actors known as Love and Death and Time don't just interact with Howard; they also get to know Winslet, Norton, and Pena, who are all harboring their own private pains, at least two-thirds of which seem entirely solvable without the intervention of mysterious strangers. Much of the blame for Collateral Beauty will probably be foisted on Smith, as the de facto biggest movie star in the world making one of his occasional steps into mawkish drama; good chance this movie would not exist without his participation. But let us not overlook the contributions of Winslet and Norton and Knightley and Mirren, who really should know better than to subject themselves to the truly terrible dialogue this movie gives them, a poisonous concoction of exposition ("he's not just a boss, he's a friend"), cutesiness (Winslet and Norton's rueful/playful banner turns into a death march), self-help ("Just engage!" one human says to another) and awkward constructions ("What was that thing you said about Einstein back there?"); it turns the movie into a nightmarescape of a hack screenwriter's addled brain more effectively than any number of Charlie Kaufman pictures. This particular screenwriter, Allan Loeb, whose name appears on a stunning array of bad movies, tries to place the movie in contemporary New York City, but tips his retrograde hand with passing references to Brooklyn being remote and neighborhoods north of 125th Street being dangerous and scary. Maybe that's a contribution from Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel.
In fine hack-screenwriter tradition, this movie has twists, and those twists are a twist itself: They're both absolutely bonkers and, once you settle into the movie's insanity, weirdly predictable. As such, I will refrain from spoiling them here, even though all I wanted to do after watching this movie was shout its absurdities from the nearest rooftop. Obviously not every movie can offer the kind of grim but humane immersion into sadness that Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea does, but in the aftermath of that affecting work, there's something especially condescending about a movie that tries to impart its wisdom using sleight-of-brain magic.
As dissimilar as they are in approach, Manchester by the Sea and Collateral Beauty both address what they seem to see as specifically male grieving. In both movies, men are the ones who truly get stuck after an unimaginable loss. The women of these films haven't "moved on" in the sense of no longer thinking about their tragedies, but they have put a greater semblance of a life back together compared to the taciturn, uncommunicative men. It's something of a fine line between addressing sensitive men in pain and devoting ever more screen time to the plight of Dude Suffering. (Though neither movie actually says this, it's easy to make the leap that these tragedies must be especially devastating because they've left men, not just women, so broken!) This makes the particular matter very much, which is maybe one (of about three-dozen) reasons why the wealthy, brilliant, successful Howard feels like such a synthetic creation, despite typically sincere and even affecting work from Smith, while Affleck's working-class character in Manchester is a devastating bit of portraiture.
Speaking from experience as a relatively recent father who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of increased sensitivity to movies about the loss of children, I can say that Manchester by the Sea, with its justifiably already-famous scene between Affleck and estranged wife Michelle Williams, earned my tears. Collateral Beauty pulls out all the stops, and left me stone-faced and resentful, even with a trim running time nearly an hour shorter than the Lonergan picture. In a way, though, Beauty stays true to its mission: It probably will bring people together. What better way to connect with your fellow humans than explaining how wack this movie is?