CONCUSSION (Movie Review)

*1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
for thematic material including disturbing images, and language
Released: December 25, 2015
Runtime: 123 minutes
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard

Sony Pictures is to be applauded for tackling (forgive the pun) the issue of NFL concussions head on (with helmet-to-helmet intent, no less) as the tragic toll of football-related brain trauma increasingly mounts.

But coming off like a mid-90s Oscar bait issue movie, Concussion is an overwrought piece of melodrama that had me wondering at what point Will Smith was going to look at the camera and say with chilly resolve, “Grinder rests.” (If you’ve seen that new Rob Lowe sitcom, then I just told you everything you need to know about Concussion.)

Avoiding nuance like the plague, this is obvious, on-the-nose, hold-the-audience-by-the-hand kind of filmmaking, with an antiquated self-important tone that’s hard to take seriously. Director Peter Landesman does his movie (and his star) no favors by giving us all the contrived intensity of a slick, run-of-the-mill CBS procedural. The problem with Concussion isn’t the case it’s making; it’s how it’s making it.

In the early 2000s, neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu – a Nigerian immigrant to Pittsburgh – examined the brains of several deceased former NFL players, each who died at relatively young ages, often by self-inflicted injuries or intentional suicide. These untimely deaths were the result of depression and mood disorders that were uncharacteristic of the lives these men led. And yet no extensive medical examinations prior to their deaths revealed any signs or symptoms that doctors could diagnose.

That’s when Omalu concluded there must be a new disorder that needed discovery and definition. He found it. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – or CTE, as it’s referred to in shorthand – is a progressive degenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Long referred to as being “punch drunk”, discovering this disease and its cause led to a major confrontation – both legal and moral – with the most dominant professional sports organization in our culture, the National Football League. Concussion tells that story in ways it believes are dramatic and powerful. In truth they’re simplistic and, at times, downright silly.

It’s that way pretty much from the start. The film begins by spending an inordinate (and completely unnecessary) amount of time introducing us to Omalu, in no uncertain terms, as a righteous crusader of impeachable virtue and resolute conviction, even as his admirable humility makes him entirely oblivious to what a saint he truly is. I’ve no doubt he probably is in real life but, dear Lord, this movie lays it on thick.

Omalu’s mentor Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, in a ridiculous bald cap) essentially counsels Bennett that he can’t go around being that virtuous because that’s not how the real world works (it could even get him in trouble), all but saying “Would you stop being so awesome already!” The movie even goes so far as to have (I kid you not) a priest literally tell Omalu in hushed reverence, “I feel God in you.” For reals. And this is just the first 10 minutes. Okay. He’s a genius. And a super duper nice guy. We got it. Move on.

It does, and things just get worse. Not only does director Landesman pound us with heavy-handed stylistic flourishes (and an incessant music score especially, swelling so much and so often that it gets in the way of Smith’s excellent, more natural performance). Smith’s sincerity clashes with the film he’s trapped in. He doesn’t need Landesman’s directorial “help” but he gets it (unfortunately), and relentlessly so. Where’s Michael Mann (The Insider) when you need him?

Desperate for drama (despite not needing to be), Concussion is peppered with histrionic confrontations and contrived shouting matches, all painfully forced. When not laying on the bombast, Landesman dips into the cheese. He has Omalu, for example, talk during his autopsies like some Corpse Whisperer, asking the spirits of the deceased to help him help them. I dunno, maybe he is a saint.

(It should be noted, too, that the film contains some disturbing imagery at times, from CTE sufferers inflicting pain on themselves – and threatening it on others – as well as the results of their actions that we see on the morgue table.)

Landesman (who also scripted) shoehorns in a sentimental love story subplot, too, that feels dropped in straight from the Formula factory, with little fine-tuning. The only refreshing feature here is how honestly and open they portray the Christian faith that Bennett and his would-be wife Prema share. And yet even there Landesman can’t leave well enough alone as his movie all-but flatly states that Bennett is on Divine appointment for such a time as this, and that God Himself doesn’t want us to play American football anymore.

Suffice it to say, Concussion doesn’t pull any punches with its NFL target (nor should it), but it’s a great disservice (not to mention dramatically inert) to treat every league official and rep as if they’re cold, callous, rage driven greed monsters, reveling in the pain and misery their game produces. These guys aren’t just arrogant and corrupt; they’re soulless sociopaths. I don’t question who the film indicts; I question how truly evil they make them.

Aside from Smith’s Omalu, the only character with any authentic consistency is Alec Baldwin’s Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Steelers physician who sacrifices his professional future to side with Omalu. Baldwin doesn’t demand our attention; he allows Bailes to be secure in his conviction. As Prema, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the excellent but underseen period drama Bellemy review) also acquits herself well, but in a pretty thankless supporting role that exists solely to prop up and fawn over Omalu’s steadfast decency.

Concussion had me rolling my eyes and it didn’t even need to damage my brain to do it. Many viewers may not be as intensely averse to the film’s crass manipulations as I am, and may even, on balance, appreciate the message enough to also appreciate the movie that delivered it. Even so, Concussion is not a challenging film, although it should be.

Or if it is to any degree, it’s due to the subject matter – and American institution – that the movie confronts, without compromise. The NFL’s head trauma scandal is so brutal, so heartbreaking, that it doesn’t need to be overplayed. But when it is (like it is in Concussion), your own innate sensibilities start throwing yellow flags to penalize the maudlin efforts, ones that constantly throw Hail Marys, when instead it should be progressing – and winning – with balanced and steady drives that know when its time to go for the big play.  Huston rests.

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