Putting Will Smith through hell creates some of the best performances of the year.

What do you think about when you’re asked why you are here? This is the question raised by Will Smith’s character, Howard in the new movie, Collateral Beauty. And  the simple fact of life is that no matter who you are or where you’re from, we are all here because of three things. Love. Life. Death. “We long for love. We wish for more time. We fear death.”, like Howard’s first line suggests, this film very much deals with a lot of relatable themes – made extraordinary relatable by an even more extraordinary cast of acting legends and up and coming legends. A cast that includes Will Smith, Hellen Mirren, Edward Nortan, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Keira Knightley and Naomie Harris.  With a shout out to relative acting newcomer Jacob Latimore – a name you will come to know. That’s the trick of the script, if these actors weren’t so damn good at what they do, the problems with this script would be far more obvious. The story never quite covers what the title of the film suggests.

But the thing is, I could see these problems, and I didn’t care. Devil Wear’s Prada director, David Frankel crafted a story about a man who has lost all hope by focusing on why his characters are there. Doing this, with this kind of cast makes it easy to get this story and where Howard is in his life. At this point in his life, it’s been three years since Howard has lost his six year old daughter. Howard has lost hope for anything in his life, the multi million dollar advertising company he started with his best friend, Ed Norton’s Whit, is in danger of collapsing because Howard is loosing clients because he doesn’t care any more. But as Whit, and their mutual dear friends, Kate Winslet’s Claire, and Michael Pena’s Simon try to help Howard, they have to put the company first. Howard has started writing letters to things, love, death, and time. The only way he seems to be able to get what he wants to say out as Smith shows the kind of talent that put him on the map as an actor the way he talks with this cast. Everything seems to be heading to Howard punching his own ticket until he’s visited by the recipients of those letters, Hellen Mirren’s Death, Kiera Knightley’s Love, and Jacob Latimore’s Time. And I think what Frankel does best with this film is he allows the focus of the story to be on Howard, but the story of the film comes through Whit, Claire and Simon. Frankel allows you to truly connect with Howard and understand Whit, Claire and Simon through them trying to help the company and Howard.

Will Smith’s career has taken an interesting and truly frustrating turn in small performances pieces as oppose to studio flare. These smaller performances, like the criminally underrated Concussion from last year – that was a hell of a lot more deserving of an Oscar than Eddie Redmayne. You see the hollowness in Howard’s eyes. The exhaustion in his face. You get Howard immediately. Similar with Edward Norton’s Whit. You get some levity with a man who’s fighting to keep his company alive while he allows his estrange daughter to distance herself from him. Kate Winslet’s Claire struggles with her loyalty to Howard and her own life goals. Michael Pena’s Simon struggles with being there for his friends and the company while his own health comes in question. What connects all these actors is passion. They throw everything they have into these roles, and you truly believe them because of it. While the weight of the story is on Smith, who takes it easily, the power of this story comes in the form of Love, Death and Time.

I have to give a lot of credit to Frankel and his handling of Love, Death and Time. Unlike Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Death in Meet Joe Black, Death, if you’ll forgive the vernacular was full of life. There absolutely no displays of power from any of them with Frankel ultimately going in a far more gaslight direction with his characters. And Damme Hellen Mirren brought a surprising amount of heart for the role. A subtle touch to the story was the way Love, Death, and Time naturally gravitated to people effected by them. And you get these characters, the way Mirren would talk with Simon, you understood where the honest in her voice was coming from. I have never given much credit to the acting ability of Keira Knightley. Because up until now, all I have ever seen her in was the Pirates of the Caribbean films – where good acting isn’t all the necessary. But watching her in a film where the only thing that you have is your performance and meeting the intensity that made Will Smith in dramatic acting with a sadness and passion was impressive.

Jacob Latimore plays Time. And comes across like he as all the time in the world. Often the last words of a scene when he’s with Love and Death, Latimore plays against Winslet and Smith for most of this film. And for a twenty year old to meet the full brunt of Will Smith’s anger, not back down, and return it, shows the beginning of what it’s going to be a long and legendary career for him. Latimore and Frankel play off Time as the most subtle of the three. Perhaps because he has the time? More likely because has the wisdom that comes through time. And you absolutely get that through Latimore’s performance as he runs the gambit from angry to a quiet reflection.

This is a film that is completely dependant on these actors ability to connect with you. There is no CGI, no effects, nothing. There is 100% nothing but these performances pushing a solid script. And this isn’t a perfect script, it never truly touches on the subject matter of it’s title and some twists felt unnecessary at times. And the climax to Howard’s story feels good despite the touch of one of those unnecessary twists. It’s not a big climax, because this isn’t a big story, and works thanks to Smith putting everything he has into that moment. You’re with him, you get this moment. And Frankel makes it work brilliantly.

But the fact of the matter was that I caught myself tearing up several times because it was that easy to connect with these characters. Frankel keeps his characters, despite the fantastical premise, completely relatable. And his use of New York has a back drop and not “another character” was something I appreciated. He shot New York as subtly as he does his story. There was no massive Fifth Avenue Christmas trees or Times Square. He always keeps the story focus on his characters and let them tell the story. And these characters! Will Smith is at the centre of all of this, but the entire cast shines in very personal and touching stories. Collateral Beauty is well worth 5 out of 5 stars from me. Like I said, this isn’t a perfect script, the problems are there, but I didn’t care because I was with these characters from the start.

I’m giving a movie that admittedly isn’t perfect a perfect rating. But that’s life right there for you. Life isn’t perfect. The film doesn’t quite tackle the collateral beauty of the world. But the idea that we long for love, we wish for more time, we fear death – it absolutely nails.