Director: Peter Landesman
Stars: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
2 (out of 5) Globes
“Concussion” is such a relic it’s almost touching. It’s an issue drama released wide at a time when most big movies are outsized franchise entries. But perhaps more important is how po-faced and earnest it is. This year has seen movies questioning how we communicate important intel to the masses and actually, hopefully reach them and effect change. “The Big Short,” no matter its faults, actively anguishes about how to get people’s attention, telling the lead-up to the 2008 economic crash — a tale that could easily be a straight-up drama — as a rollicking comedy that stops dead so pretty faces can break down impossibly complex factoids like we’re stupid and easily distracted. Because we are.
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“Concussion” is more old school, as in from three or four years ago, before multiplex cinema’s own crash into homogenous blockbusters. Will Smith plays Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist who, while stationed in a Pittsburgh hospital, unearthed evidence that several former NFL players were suffering from a form of brain damage known as CTE, which turned its victims violent, even suicidal. Rather than heed his findings, the NFL immediately turned Goliath, trying to smear Omalu’s credibility and destroy his life lest his research undermine a sport that had become intrinsic to our national identity and economics.
Smith’s Bennet is a very good man with a very, very minor fault: he’s clinical and awkward with people. Real life supplied him with a solution to that problem, namely a Kenyan immigrant, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who became his roommate and, in short order, his goodly wife. It’s vexing seeing the excellent Mbatha-Raw — a deserved “It” girl, thanks to “Belle” and “Beyond the Lights” — reduced to a mere support system spouse, there to build up Bennet’s confidence and little else. (The actor imbues her with a warmth that nearly, but doesn’t quite, transcends the thinness of the role.)
Perhaps worse, though, is that it leaves the film flat as both a story and as a work of activism. What Omalu found severely threatened, and still threatens, the future of the nation’s most profitable sport — the one that only America does, in part because it’s mind-blowingly dangerous. “Concussion” doesn’t sugarcoat it, sticking by Omalu and viewing it with fresh eyes, from the perspective of someone previously unaware of the sport. But it also knows the NFL, who only belatedly acknowledged Omalu’s studies in 2009, is powerful. And so it has to make a flimsy and half-hearted attempt to praise the game as “beautiful” and other such adjectives. It’s like if another whistle blower movie, “The Insider,” ended with Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand saying cigarettes aren’t that bad. It’s as if it knows it’s attacking a corporate behemoth that people actually love and can’t go full monty, thereby alienating the masses.
As such, “Concussion” has an identity problem, though that could have been less of an issue in a less staid and stiff movie. The direction by Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) is meat-and-potatoes — generically “handsome” when at all. Smith is very likable, but he has nothing on the real Omalu — an irrepressible force of nature who, while promoting the film, has upstaged both the plenty effervescent Smith and the actor’s portrayal of him in the movie. There’s a token comic relief: a grouchy hospital director played by a very Albert Brooks-y Albert Brooks. But Omalu himself should be both comic relief and hero, alternately funny and righteously angry. Instead Omalu gets an overly earnest drama that looks out of place in 2015 in more ways than one.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge