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Collateral Beauty

In J.M. Barrie's timeless fable Peter Pan, the lead character - who refuses to grow old - describes death as "an awfully big adventure". That sentiment is evidently shared by Allan Loeb, screenwriter of Collateral Beauty, who imagines one father's grief at the loss of his six-year-old child as a harebrained journey of self-discovery in New York City that repeatedly pushes the boundaries of realism and common sense. Mortality and loss are heart-tugging themes that run through several forthcoming awards-worthy films, including A Monster Calls on January 1 and Jackie, Lion and Manchester By The Sea on January 13. Alas, David Frankel's weepie doesn't sit comfortably in that esteemed company. His film is hamstrung by clumsy writing, syrupy sentimentality and a final act that relies on suspensions of disbelief that will be beyond the tolerance of most audiences. In front of the camera, all that glistens is golden, including a starry ensemble cast, who boast two Academy Awards and a further 16 nominations between them, not counting the nod for Best Supporting Actress that Naomie Harris is destined to receive early next year for her revelatory turn as a drug-addicted mother in the independent drama Moonlight. The actors elevate Collateral Beauty above emotionally manipulative mediocrity... just. Howard Inlet (Will Smith) is the majority shareholder is an advertising agency, which he runs with his business partner and good friend, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton). Three years ago, Howard lost his only daughter and the grief has reduced him to an empty shell, unable to communicate with colleagues or clients. Whit fears the company will implode unless he takes drastic action. "We need to be in a position to prove Howard isn't fit to vote his shares," he tells fellow executives Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and Simon Scott (Michael Pena). They hire private investigator Sally Price (Ann Dowd) to gather incriminating evidence and she discovers that Howard writes angry letters to Death, Time and Love. So Whit, Claire and Simon hire three actors - Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and Aimee (Keira Knightley) - to portray these three abstractions and converse with Howard, then secretly film the conversations as proof of his madness. Meanwhile, Howard stumbles meekly into a self-help group for parents run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris). "I'm trying to fix my mind," he explains. "You lost a child, Howard, it will never be fixed," Madeleine responds tenderly. Collateral Beauty deals with the characters' woes like a bull in a china shop of brittle emotions. Almost every outcome is loudly telegraphed, including a coughing fit that signals impending doom for one protagonist, and a tower of implausibilities tumbles down in a bewildering resolution of anti-climaxes. The cast wring copious tears, and give their all, every time the script founders.