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‘Collateral Beauty’ well-acted, but pretty much empty

By Gary Clift

One of the interesting features in the now apparently permanent local controversy about changing the high school sports teams’ mascot is that those who want to get rid of the current mascot are for change itself, not for change to anything in particular.

Which would leave the teams with what sort of mascot? Does it make any difference? Apparently not to the proponents of change.

Consider how this sort of thinking has worked out in Hollywood. The politically correct want to avoid stories with religious backgrounds. And even the sentimental sort of Dickensian stuff that dominated American Christmas pop culture during most of the 20th century is, to their way of thinking, too tainted by association with angels and saints.

So the extent of this year’s cinematic Christmas season were three films about a feuding families (“Almost Christmas,” “Bad Santa 2,” and “Office Christmas Party”) and one more obviously philosophic (“Collateral Beauty”). The closest we came this year to getting another “It’s a Wonderful Life” is this last film.

The story for “Collateral Beauty” is set at Christmas, and there are some traditional decorations. Among the characters are some supernatural creatures who could be understood as angels. And the film has a little sympathy for its human characters, who are struggling with important concerns. In this version of “Reign Over Me” and “The Soloist,” Howard (Will Smith) is the old friend with the mental problem. His six-yearold daughter has died, and years later he hasn’t recovered from his grief. This is wrecking things at the New York advertising agency he helped to found.

Not only is he not helping with the work there, but he also can’t be bothered to consider a sale which would keep the partners from losing their stakes and the employees from losing their jobs. What are his colleagues to do?

Divorced Whit (whose eight-year-old daughter hates him), Claire (unmarried and wishing she’d had children), and Simon (suffering from a fatal disease about which he has not told his wife) decide to try to shake up Howard’s reality. They hire three under-funded actors (played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) to meet H. while pretending to be Death, Time, and Love, three concepts to which Howard has written complaining letters.

His friends hope Howard will be scared straight or something. But they have a private detective following him to film the meetings in case those events provide evidence he is not legally competent to conduct business.

The film allows in a series of implausibilities that are too obvious not to be treated as parts of an extra-realistic scheme. First the detective robs the U.S. mail to get those letters, and this is a bigger deal than some younger movie-goers may recognize.

Then the movie makes the actors invisible on the video taken of their meetings with Howard. And later it makes sure he knows about the personal troubles of Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña), though we’ve been assured he hasn’t been paying attention to them. Then there’s a turn some viewers will think surprising, having to do with Howard and the leader of a therapy group for people whose young children have died. And that leader has a story about a conversation she had, about “collateral beauty,” with a woman in a hospital corridor, and we recognize that woman.

But the scheme of supernatural facts or story implausibilities doesn’t make any more sense than does the assertion that at the time of a child’s death, there will be “collateral” (surely the wrong word) events or images which are good, if not good enough to function together as an off-set.

So “CB” is well-acted, but pretty much empty. Which may be what happens when we do things because we want alteration itself rather than a change to something else we have imagined. We don’t want religious movies because we want change. And “Collateral Beauty” is what we get instead.

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