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Film review: "Collateral Beauty" 

People tend to get sentimental around the holidays, and for good reason: another year is winding down, everyone's spending time with friends and family, and we're feeling nostalgic. A little sentimentality on those dark, cold winter nights can feel as comforting as a cozy fleece blanket. But bury yourself too much and you might suffocate on all that good cheer.

"Collateral Beauty" should come with a warning label. It's trite melodrama sprinkled with holiday magic, and then drained of character, nuance, and any shred of reality. Pandering and manipulative, the film is determined to get tears from audiences if it has to squeeze them out of you by force.

Will Smith stars as Howard, a once successful New York City advertising executive who never recovered from the death of his 6-year-old daughter two years before. He's withdrawn from his life, his friends, and his career. He spends his days constructing elaborate domino setups in his office, and then knocking them down (why he bothers to go into work to do this is beyond me). His friends and professional partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña), are growing desperate; his refusal to re-engage and get back to work is jeopardizing the agency they all own together.

And so his friends hire a private investigator (the wonderful Ann Dowd, in a nothing role) to follow Howard and get a better read on his state of mind. While tailing him, she discovers that he's been writing letters to Love, Death, and Time -- concepts that Howard believes are the three constants in life -- and he's got a bone to pick with them all.

Whit, Claire, and Simon see an opportunity, and an odd plan is hatched: they'll hire three local actors to portray Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley), and Time (Jacob Latimore). They ask each one to talk with Howard and get him to air his grievances out loud, while their investigator secretly films the exchanges. They believe this might offer Howard some sort of catharsis. But barring that, it might provide them with enough evidence of his instability that they can wrest control of the agency and salvage what they can of a rapidly sinking ship. At first, it seems as though the deception on the part of Howard's friends might add an interesting wrinkle to the story, but Allan Loeb's script never really bothers to explore that idea.

Meanwhile Howard is making tentative steps on his own, constantly milling about outside a support group for grieving parents, led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris, right off her terrific performance in "Moonlight"). She implores him to appreciate the "collateral beauty," a nonsense phrase that's her way of saying that beautiful, positive moments can be found in even the most dire of circumstances. It's a lovely message, but there has to be a better way to convey it than having characters stand around explaining it to us.

In essence, the story is a twist on "A Christmas Carol," with Howard being visited by (what he believes to be) three spirits, but other than that director David Frankel doesn't bother much with the holiday milieu. The story appears to be set during the Christmas season mostly so the filmmaker can fill his movie with bokeh light effects and arrange his cast in front of pretty, twinkling lights while they endlessly explain their feelings.

"Collateral Beauty" boasts the type of cast that makes you wonder what on Earth attracted them to such an ill-conceived script (besides a new vacation home or the draw of working with one another). The actors do a fine enough job, but none are given much to work with.

Loeb's script treats human experience like a puzzle in which the pieces must all neatly fit into place. He bends over backward trying to tie everything together in a neat package wrapped up with a bow and presented with some "Ta dah!" hand flourishes. Its carefully constructed rendering of humanity feels alien and unnatural, like it was written by someone who read a detailed description of emotion in a book once.

The story crams in as much trauma as possible; in addition to dead children, there's also terminal illness, a parent facing dementia, and a ticking biological clock. There are affecting moments, but any real emotion gets smothered under the strained plot machinations. It doesn't help that "Manchester by the Sea," a much more honest portrayal of grief, opened in Rochester theaters just last week.

If you're in the mood for something sappy, schmaltzy, and more than a little silly, "Collateral Beauty" will probably scratch that itch. But its smothering benevolence just might be hazardous to your health.

Visit on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the documentary "Peter and the Farm."

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