'Collateral' damage

New ensemble dramedy will hurt your brain

You've heard the expression "dumber than a bag of rocks?" Well, the bag of rocks sold a screenplay, and I've just seen the movie that's been made from it. It's called "Collateral Beauty," and it's as deep as an inspirational kitty poster and twice as cutesy.

Do not be fooled by the presence of a movie star (Will Smith), respected British thespians (Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris), noteworthy character actors (Edward Norton and Michael Peña) and Keira Knightley. They are here for their big paychecks. What will be your excuse if you sit through this 97-minute Hallmark card, this "Chicken Poop for the Soul," that has the audacity to give Mirren the line, in reference to the film's action, "This isn't Noel Coward. This is Chekhov!"

The plot of this ensemble dramedy from David Frankel ("One Chance") proves preposterous in the extreme: Smith plays Howard, a Manhattan advertising executive who, once a rainmaker, now threatens the firm by his refusal to work and his inability to be fired. Since his 6-year-old daughter died two years earlier, Howard now spends his days setting up dominos in his work space so he can knock them over -- the perfect metaphor, by the way, for the script by Allan Loeb ("Just Go with It").

And so, his nervous-Nellie colleagues Claire (Winslet), Whit (Norton), and Simon (Peña) decide they have no choice but to make their friend Howard's life yet more hellish. So the conspiratorial triumverate hires the "Mormon grandmother" p.i. (Ann Dowd, and, no, you don't want to know), who commits a federal crime to let her clients know that Howard has been writing and mailing therapeutic letters to Love, Time, and Death. Y'know, when he's not knocking over dominos or madly riding his bike through NYC like he just don't care.

So, as you do, Norton's character hires a trio of off-Broadway actors (Knightley, Jacob Latimore, and Mirren) to gaslight Howard by conversing with him as Love, Time, and Death, so the Mormon grandmother can videotape the conversations and out the actors and thereby perpetrate unnecessary fraud to prove a man crazed with grief is, in fact, crazy. Yes, this is really the plot of the latest Will Smith movie. But wouldn't you know it? It's Whit, Claire and Simon who most need to learn lessons from Love, Time, and Death: Whit wants to reconcile with his estranged daughter-moppet, Claire feels her biological clock of motherhood ticking, and Simon has multiple myeloma. Yes, that's a spoiler, but you promise you won't see this movie, right? Right?

The whole thing is meant to be Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" but with three Clarences and four George Baileys, all behaving like psychopathic preschoolers. Capra got knocked for what wags dubbed "Capra-corn," but it's his imitators who deserve ridicule for their lack of humor and heart, their synthetic, cynical workmanship. Still, maybe you want to listen to an alternately sprightly and treacly score as you're peddled b.s. philosophy like "Nothing's ever really dead if you look at it right." But you don't, right? Right?

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