There's almost nothing that the 2003 sci-fi horror film Dreamcatcher has in common with the 2016 Oscarbait melodrama Collateral Beauty, and yet they're the only movies I can ever remember having seen that are both bad in almost exactly the same way. To wit, we have here a movie that has been made by very talented people on both sides of the camera (or, at the very least, entirely competent and sturdy people), and they are all doing very good work. Some of the acting is genuinely brilliant, there are stunningly good grace notes of foreshadowing and thematic resonance in the screenplay, it's so beautiful to look at, and it has been directed with a focus of pace and cunning manipulations of tone and mood that are admirable at least, if not particularly life-changing. It has literally all of the ingredients to be a very good, if not an actually great movie, except that it starts from a scenario so spectacularly, once-in-a-lifetime misconceived that all of that wonderful work by those wonderful creative types ends up looking far more grotesque than if it had the decency to be a shabby little piece of shit.

The plot hook is- well, that somewhat depends on the plot, doesn't it? Collateral Beauty has two, though it takes a while for that fact to become clear. The better plot involves Will Smith, in a performance perversely calculated to take advantage of almost none of his best skills as an actor (the character, suffocating with grief, barely speaks or smiles). He plays Howard, an advertising executive who used to be a one-of-a-kind genius in the field because of his inerrant ability to make clients feel safe and welcome in his hands. Used to be. Then his daughter died, and after a couple of years of apparently muddling through his pain, Howard has spent the last six months altogether giving up; he only comes into work to set up huge domino constructions over the course of several days, and then watching without visible emotion as he collapses them. His work friends and colleagues have been badgering him, which is apparently the reason that he starts haunting a support group for parents who've lost their children, and the leader of this group, Madeleine (Naomie Harris), puts in a huge effort to try to make him feel like he can join in to let his grief flow honestly.

This is, in all honesty, a very lovely sub-movie. It's shameless emotional manipulation of course, but that's part of what the movies are for, and Harris's performance is grounded and pragmatic in ways that keep the gloopiest swerves into melodrama from making themselves too very obnoxious. She even makes the shock ending of this subplot feel so plain and character-driven as to approach naturalism. Smith's not at the same level - again, he's sacrificed virtually all of his primary strengths as a movie star, and he's never been at his best as a tragedian (though he's better here than in the disastrous Seven Pounds) - but he cries damn good, and in a movie about a dad who can't come to grips with the fact that his daughter is dead, what more can you ask of the star? He cries good and reader, I am not so savvy and self-possessed that I didn't cry a bit alongside him. The film earns that, and good on it. It's not without its hokey bits, or its mistakes; the clattering arrangement of nonsense syllables that makes up the title is foregrounded in Madeleine's big speech about "you have to remember to look for the collateral beauty", and it is very clear that screenwriter Allan Loeb means for that to be the emotional centerpiece of the film, despite the phrase "collateral beauty" having no actual meaning in English (it appears to be a clumsy back formation from "collateral damage"), nor any invented meaning that the film cares to explain. But still, it is all very sad and warm and heartstring-tugging and what have you.

Also, crucially, this isn't actually what Collateral Beauty is about. Smith's above-the-title credit notwithstanding, Howard's grief is very much an afterthought. The main part of the film feels like it was assembled by a convocation of sociopaths: see, Howard's sorrow is starting to threaten the very existence of the company (which has been based in such a large part on his relationships with the clients). Someone wants to buy it, and for more than it's worth, but without his say-so, nothing can go through. So in a hail-Mary attempt to save the company, three of its highest-ranking executives have hatched a completely batshit plan. It started when Howard's partner and owner of 40% of the company to his 60%, Whit (Edward Norton), hired a private investigator by the name of Sally Price (Ann Dowd) to see if she could dig up anything incriminating. There was absolutely nothing, except for the curious discovery that Howard has been sending letters to the universe: in particular, he's written scathing "fuck you notes" to the very concepts of death, time, and love. In an unusually sober and well-thought-out plan, Whit, Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) decide to hire a trio of community theater actors to play Death, Time, and Love in the flesh: twinkly-eyed Brigitte (Helen Mirren), sullen Raffi (Jacob Latimore), and guilt-ridden Amy (Keira Knightley). They will do one of two things: either shake Howard out of his funk enough that he can function again, or provide doctored video footage that will make him look insane and thus provide the material for a vote of no confidence at the next board meeting.

It is... I don't... what the... How does this happen? How does an executive hear this pitch, especially in concert with such a nightmare of a title as Collateral Beauty, and think, "I want to be in the business of making this film happen"? Let's make something damn clear: this is Whit, Claire, and Simon's movie. Each of them, it turns out, has some connection to Death, Time, and Love themselves: Simon is dying of cancer, Claire is feeling her biological clock winding down, and Whit has fucked up his marriage and now his daughter despises him. It will shock and stun and surprise the fucking daylights out of you to learn that in liasing with Brigitte/Death, Raffi/Time, and Amy/Love, each of the three grows just a little bit as a person and solves their problems just a tiny bit. Meanwhile, Howard's story is impacted by this all, kind of. It's his initial encounters with the actors that send him to that support group. But mostly he's off in an entirely different and much better movie, and it is much smaller and lavished with much less attention by director David Frankel and everybody else. Nope, it's this "magical realism minus the magic" tower of contrived bullshit that Collateral Beauty is proudest of and keeps pushing in our faces.

There are, I'll bet, ways of making this work. Collateral Beauty doesn't find them. It's striving for a very raw, unadorned evocation of human feelings, set against a chilly New York brought to realist life by cinematographer Maryse Alberti (who hasn't been obliged to change her aesthetic too much from last year's rough Creed). And yet the whole thing is based on a farcical confabulation that only makes sense if you assume the filmmakers have nothing but the bitterest scorn for human emotions, and wants to make a mockery of their characters for coming up with the world's stupidest idea and then following through on it.

Mind you, while you're watching all of this, you keep wanting it to somehow be good. At least I did. The thing is, it's beautifully-shot, and well paced, and there's not a bad performance in the bunch. Winslet salvages the howling, sexist cliché of "powerful businesswoman feels bad that she can't have babies", Peña has the hollow, weak terror of a man who knows he's dying and won't tell anybody. Mirren is, as God is my witness, better than she has been in anything since she won her Oscar ten years ago, engaging in all kinds of small bits of business and nuanced character work found nowhere in the script, building out Brigitte as a vivid portrait of the aging actor who suddenly finds this one great chance to prove herself and make a difference. By taking money to gaslight a grieving father who spends all his days making domino structures, I want to remind you.

I suppose the film's heart is in the right place, but it is so fucking weird. This is heart-tugging melodrama made by people fundamentally without hearts (setting the whole shebang in the world of New York advertising firms was probably the tell there). I can't even bring myself to call it "terrible" - but it is terribly fucking daft, and while 2016 has borne witness to worse movies, it surely hasn't seen any that were so guaranteed to be bad from the first incarnation of their story.