This year has been surprisingly and pleasingly light on star-driven, painfully earnest Oscar bait, but along comes ‘Concussion’ to make up for lost time. The film’s title is wholly appropriate to how viewers will feel stumbling out of this manipulative claptrap.
Of course, it actually refers to the NFL scandal from a few years back regarding the unchecked head trauma that ruined the retirement lives of generations of athletes. Since the doctor at the heart of the scandal was Nigerian, Will Smith gets an accented role with which to apply for his Oscar nomination and tosses in plenty of brooding looks off camera to add to his cause. It’s an irritating movie and a nauseatingly self-important one. However, it’s also professionally mounted and clocks in at a reasonable length. So it could be worse. Small victories.
The movie opens with two stories in parallel. David Morse pops up as local hero Mike Webster, a former football star whose life is spiralling out of control with dementia at the age of 50. Simultaneously, we meet Will Smith’s noble Dr. Bennet Omalu, who’s a good guy and scientific genius pitched at almost superhuman levels. Eventually, they meet when Webster’s corpse lands on Omalu’s slab and he cracks open the skull to discover remarkable degenerative brain damage caused from sustaining too many concussions.
Initially unfamiliar with American football, the good doctor is shocked to discover the head-smashing dangers of the country’s beloved pastime/multi-billion dollar industry. He decides that a crusade is in order to let people know the risks of the sport and hopefully provide support for those stuck with brain injuries years after they left the field. It’s going to be a tough battle and will require help. Thankfully, Omalu has a wry mentor played by Albert Brooks, a doubting team doctor played by Alec Baldwin, and a wife with no personality traits or interest beyond providing him with loving support (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
‘Concussion’ comes from writer/director Peter Landesman (‘Parkland’, ‘Kill the Messanger’), a former award-winning journalist who now specializes in well-meaning true life dramas. For someone whose work is rooted in reality, Landesman has a hard time finding a naturalistic tone in his movies. The most frustrating thing about this film is that the subject matter is actually compelling and even worthy of dramatization. They way the NFL mistreated former athletes in its massive machine was disgusting and something far too few Sunday night football warriors have learned about.
Unfortunately, ‘Concussion’ imparts those lessons in an endless stream of ham-fisted monologues and thudding dialogue scenes. You’ll get to see Will Smith scream “It’s the truth!” and utter lines like “God did not intend for us to play football” without a hint of irony. The storytelling and message-making is so on-the-nose that viewers will feel more pummelled than enlightened. Landesman does everything he can to make montages of folks staring into microscopes seem exciting and cinematic, but unfortunately this is one of those movies in which characters scream messages at each other, and not a particularly good one. It really could have benefited from a dialogue polish or three to make those messages entertaining or at least sound like human speech. Alas, that’s not the movie we got.
Admittedly, Will Smith tries valiantly hard to win an Oscar here. He commits to his accent at full force and ditches all of his usual mannerisms. On a purely technical level, it’s good acting. Unfortunately, the film is so cheesy and Smith’s lines are so underwhelming that his good work goes to waste.
The same can be said for Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin, two top tier scene-stealers when given the opportunity. Brooks clearly got a longer leash with his dialogue and inserted a little of his trademark wit, just not enough to register beyond stunt casting. Baldwin speaks his script drivel with sultry sounds, but fails to elevate the material despite his raspy efforts. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has such a pitiful “good wife” character that you can’t help but feel sorry for the actress. The only actor to register at all is the consistently excellent David Morse. He plays his damaged soul with heartbreaking conviction and actually makes the movie worth watching whenever he’s on the screen, but he dies quickly out of narrative requirements. There isn’t even much of that material as a saving grace.
As hard as I’ve been on ‘Concussion’, I can’t pretend that this is one of the worst movies of the year or even the worst movie of the month. As weak as Landesman’s skills are with dialogue, he has a handsome and propulsive aesthetic that makes his cornball fluff move by pleasantly. The cast is far more talented than the material they’ve been saddled with, and can occasionally elevate it. Selected moments in ‘Concussion’ work rather well, but those moments only serve to emphasize how far the film loses its way in the surrounding scenes.
Sadly, this isn’t just disposable awards bait. It’s a bad movie trying hard to be taken seriously. That earnest intent only makes things worse when the flick goes off the rails. It’s a waste of time, despite boasting a pretty excellent performance from David Morse.