Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Concussion

3/4

Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, David Morse

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material including Some Disturbing Images

"Concussion" is a safe, reliable "David vs. Goliath" film.  No more, no less.  What it does, though, it does well.  The film is consistently compelling and features a great performance from Will Smith.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers player and hometown hero Mike Webster (Morse) has just been found dead.  The final months of his life he had been acting strangely, losing his money and living as a homeless person.  The pathologist examining him, Nigerian-born Dr. Bennett Omalu (Smith), is curious how a man who has everything could suddenly go insane and die like this.  Using his own money, he performs a series of tests and discovers that Webster suffered from a degenerative brain disease caused from repeated head trauma.  Of course, that does not go over well with the NFL, who goes on the attack after someone dares to give a name to their worst nightmare.

Storywise, there's nothing new here.  It follows the regular beats (even if just to say it did) and plays it safe at every turn.  Those who like these stories will like this movie.

The main thrust of the story is effective.  The NFL seems sleazy, but not nasty enough.  That's probably because the main face of the NFL in the film, Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson), is only on screen for five minutes tops and never mentioned elsewhere.  He also shares no screen time with the central character.  Writer/director Peter Landesman tries to make up for this by showing us pictures of NFL stadiums with sinister music, but it doesn't work.  More effective are the clips of football players getting hit.  It's amazing what context can do to a situation.  During a football game, they provoke adrenaline.  Here, they're devastating.

The scene where he explains his findings to other doctors doesn't work.  It only occurs after he sees it in Webster.  Scientifically speaking, that doesn't say much, and some computer animations don't convince us.  Better writing and handling would have made it land better.

Will Smith is one of the most charismatic and popular movie stars out there, and for good reason.  He's enormously likable, can bear the weight of a mega-blockbuster on his shoulders with ease, and understands the concept of comic timing.  But his range as a dramatic actor is limited.  He was okay in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and awful in this year's "Focus."  With "Concussion," Smith is getting Oscar-buzz, and a third Oscar nomination is a definite possibility.  As the slightly dorky, naiive but idealistic Bennett Omalu, Smith has found a role he can disappear into.  It took me only moments to forget I was seeing Will Smith.

Also good is Alec Baldwin, who plays Dr. Julian Bailes, who used to work for the Steelers.  Their relationship is interesting because they both want the same thing, but Omalu is naiive, and after the strong-arming by the NFL, he doesn't trust Bailes to be not corrupted by them.  It's Baldwin's best work in years.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Prima Mutsio, Bennett's roommate turned wife.  The character is under developed, but the actress does solid work.  Albert Brooks is in fine form as Bennett's boss and friend, Dr. Cyril Wecht.

While the film's main plotline is fine, the stuff surrounding it is shortchanged.  It's obvious that much of it was left on the cutting room floor (for example, we only know that Preta is pregnant when Bennett suddenly starts talking to the fetus).  And while much is made of Omalu's nationality, too little is done with it to make it meaningful.

So "Concussion" remains a solid drama, but not much else.

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