How dare they? How dare they?

Collateral Beauty
Directed by David Frankel
Written by Allan Loeb
97 mins, rated M
1/2 star

Fasten your seatbelts, this is going to get bumpy. I had to sit through this so that you don’t have to, but there might be one reason to see it. Collateral Beauty sets a record: it is probably the worst movie that each of these fine actors will ever do.

How on earth did someone persuade not just Will Smith – after all, he has form in choosing bad scripts – but Helen Mirren, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Naomie Harris and Keira Knightley that this maudlin, mawkish, morose, misbegotten piece of Christmas flummery was worth their time and effort? I’m guessing two things: lots of money and a powerful single agent who bound them together with a three-card trick: ‘Helen’s doing it, you don’t wanna miss out, it’s gonna get nominated…’

Actors will tell you that they never know if the movie they are making is going to work – too many things that can go wrong, too many cooks can spoil the broth – but they are at least supposed to know how to read a script. Here’s the pitch for this one: we’re going to redo Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in New York, with Will Smith as a former advertising whizz who teeters on the edge of madness after the death of his child. Really, where do I sign up?

No wait, there’s more: his business partners (Norton, Pena, Winslet) can’t get him to agree to sell the company they founded, so they hire three struggling theatre actors (Mirren, Knightley and Jacob Latimore) to pretend they are the spirits of Death, Love and Time – the same spirits to whom he has been writing heartbroken, angry, emotional letters. Then they pay a private detective to film him acting crazy in public so they can have him declared incompetent, ensuring a huge Christmas profit. That groan you heard was Charles Dickens turning in his grave.

Smith is drawn to BIG SAD AND LONELY roles. He has even made at least one of them work in The Pursuit of Happyness, ten years ago. Results were mixed with I am Legend, Hancock and After Earth, but you see the pattern: these are all colossally egocentric vehicles, in which Smith plays a version of the last man on earth (literally, in I am Legend). For a comedian, he’s fatally drawn to films in which there are no jokes and no straight man.

He’s a fine dramatic actor in the right vehicle (like Ali), but those scripts are rare. In the hands of the wrong director (and David Frankel here is that man), he falls back on mannerisms and external ticks. So Howard (Smith) rides his bicycle against NY traffic in the snow to show he has a death wish. When he comes to work, which is rare, he builds huge structures out of domino-like pieces in order to knock them over. Smith walks through most of the film with half-closed eyes and tightly-clamped jaw to indicate he is VERY SAD.

There is not one moment when his character’s grief is anything but on the sleeve, and he’s not alone. If Mirren and Knightley have given worse performances I haven’t seen them. Norton and Winslet seem at least to be real enough to pass as humans. Naomie Harris, as a woman who runs a self-help group for people who have lost a child, maintains her dignity in the face of lines that Chuck Norris would have vetoed.

It’s one thing to misjudge an idea, quite another to do that on the terrain of real and terrible loss. Imagine being the person in the audience who really has lost a child, watching this manipulative dreck. How dare they? How dare they? I would give them all 100 hours of community service for this hectoring bowl of tripe. Let them watch it a hundred times over and repent.