Will Smith stars as depressed business genius Howard, who after losing his six-year-old daughter three years earlier has become a shell of a man. While he still heads to his swanky New York office every day, he avoids doing any actual work in favour of building large and intricate domino towers, which he knocks down days later.
His lack of interest means his business is suffering, which prompts his partners – and close friends – Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena), to take drastic action. In order to save the business from going bust the trio have found a buyer, but with Howard controlling the majority of its shares, they can’t make the deal.
To try and get their good friend (did we already mention that?) to snap out of his sorrow, Whit, Claire and Simon stumble upon a harebrained scheme to hire three actors to represent Time (Jacob Latimore), Love (Keira Knightley) and Death (Helen Mirren), and visit their grief-stricken friend, pretending to be invisible figments of Howard’s imagination. These are the “three abstractions” that Howard believes govern everything, and he has been writing to them while mourning his dead daughter. If this isn’t bad enough, the three amigos also hire a private eye to catch Howard on camera behaving like a madman. Some good pals he’s got there!
At first Howard dismisses the ‘invisible’ abstractions, but during their second attempt he breaks and engages with them. Despite their questionable motives, it appears Whit, Claire and Simon’s plan is having the desired effect. Howard begins to rejoin the real world, starting by attending a self help group for bereaved parents where Naomie Harris’ group leader Madeleine soon becomes a source of support.
To put it bluntly the premise of this movie is completely ridiculous, made even more ludicrous by the fact his three close buddies think pushing their mourning friend to the brink of madness is in everyone’s best interests. Aside from the three abstractions mildly reminding us of the three ghosts from A Christmas Carol (though the film would have been better if they really were from Howard’s imagination), and there being lots of shots of tinsel and Christmas trees, there is no real festive plot. Packaging itself as Christmas movie is cheating the audience somewhat, though modern classics like Love Actually and The Holiday have nothing to fear.
The acting is a mixed bag; Smith is good, so don’t believe everything the negative reviews say. His scenes with Harris at the end will have you reaching for the tissues, but it’s unfortunately a case of too little too late. Mirren too is great as the theatrical actress who sees Death as her star turn. Winslet and Pena fair well, though Norton and Knightley are the weaker links in this film. That may have something to do with their characters, especially Whit who is smarmy and just generally unlikeable.
The title is also completely meaningless, and despite Harris’ best effort at trying to explain what collateral beauty means, it really does amount to nothing.
Is this the worst 97 minutes of cinema? No, there is arguably much, much worse. It’s just a shame that such a respected cast has chosen such a Christmas turkey.
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