Sometimes when movie characters engage in secretive behavior, there’s a simple explanation, but here, in “Collateral Beauty,” things look grim. First of all, the trio of worried souls (Edward Norton, Michael Pena and Kate Winslet) have to hire a private investigator because their boss (Will Smith) no longer communicates with them after the death two years ago of his six-year-old daughter and spends all his office time building elaborate domino structures, which he then knocks down. Alas, when Will actually leaves the office, what he does is write letters – but not to people, to abstractions like “Love,” “Death” and “Time.” Plus, he ignores the takeout that Kate thoughtfully leaves by his apartment door each night, and hangs out at the NYC dog park – although he doesn’t own a dog. What in the world are they to do?
Well they could start by hiding the dominoes after Will leaves for the day, but that may strike them as too cruel, so the three proceed to hire a trio of amateur actors to portray Love (Keira Knightley with a bizarrely fluctuating accent), Death (Helen Mirren), and Time (Jacob Latimore), who will engage Will in the hopes that he will finally snap out of his grief. Or at least, they can videotape Will talking to the figures and then use the miracle of digital editing to make it seem like Will is talking only to himself. And then that way, they can convince their company lawyer that Will should sign over the company shares to them. True, not just one, but two of the people involve object to the scheme on the grounds that it’s, you know, cruel to toy with someone’s sanity, but in the end, they go for it. Interactions then occur more or less as planned, but there’s startling little showy catharsis going on and the interactions themselves take oddly little time. Meanwhile, Will takes steps on his own and connects with a woman in a grief support group. And it’s revealed – not too surprisingly – that Edward, Michael and Kate have unresolved issues that they have chosen the wrong way to deal with. Edward’s involves his estranged child who is angry at him for cheating on mom, but who is so obnoxious, I was glad she decided to nix the Christmas visit. However, Michael’s and Kate’s problems are easier to sympathize with.
When Will discovers his employees’ deception, he responds as if they simply engaged in a prank like shaking up the soda can before handing him his drink, which is disappointing (but I guess means that he is getting better). In fact, most of the movie feels like it’s building toward a climax that never quite seems to arrive. However, everything does work out in the end, and presumably, the dominoes are retired for good. “American Beauty,” a movie which has some similarities, also employs symbolism – but there, it’s roses and a plastic bag blowing in the wind to symbolize the random beauty on earth. Watching elaborate structures of dominoes topple is more entertaining, though the message of the two movies is similar – that beauty is found in the most unexpected places, and to quote a poet, that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.