Concussion (2015, Peter Landesman)

Most of Concussion is inoffensive Oscar bait. Only for the dudes though. And only for the actors. None of the technicals. Will Smith is the main Oscar bait; he’s a crusading African immigrant coroner who’s a medical super genius who wholesomely communes with his cadavers before respectfully cutting them up. The film shows Smith talking to the bodies a few times and it’s always a kind of othering to it. But it’s not actually important either, just part of a red herring of a subplot involving Mike O'Malley as a coworker who doesn’t like Smith for being smart and African. O’Malley’s pretty bad. Like… Concussion’s problem isn’t usually the acting—even though no one’s actually great and there are big asterisks on the scenery chewers too—but O’Malley’s bad. Like. He drains the energy out of his scenes.

And some of the problem with that energy drain is—like most everything—director Landesman’s bad screenplay. Smith’s effort in his performance—he’s clearly taking it seriously even though things are not working out, especially in the herky-jerky third act when reality not being adequately dramatic enough really takes the steam out of Smith’s hero’s quest or whatever—but through it all Smith at least is doing the work. He’s not great. He’s not even good, but not for lack of trying; the script’s quite bad at the characterization and character development, which is a big freaking problem given the anticlimactic finish to the film; it’s a de facto character study only it didn’t study its characters at all.

Though at least Smith gets some decent Oscar bait monologues. The one where he starts tearing up as Arliss Howard—who’s absurdly highly billed for a glorified cameo—is an astounding prick to him would be effective if someone else were directing the movie, even with the script. Because Landesman isn’t just writing bland and bland extra dialogue, he’s also directing and calling his direction bland would be a compliment. It’s often bad.

Cinematographer Salvatore Totino and composer James Newton Howard get some points for mostly making it look like Landesman isn’t completely incompetent but the times when they aren’t there to cover… Landesman’s abject incompetency is still very obvious.

So with a bad script, terrible direction, an unsuccessful flex from Smith in the lead, not to mention the movie—which criticizes the NFL, not really criticizing them too hard; poor Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a Hitchockian damsel out getting stalked—maybe—and it wrecking havoc on her while Smith gets to hang out with the boys and drink. The boys are Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks. Brooks is why Concussion makes it long enough to get to Smith’s frequent Oscar bait scenes. Brooks is Smith’s mentor and buddy. Their relationship is more believable than Brooks’s makeup, which is sixties “Star Trek” bad yet somehow still lightyears better than David Morse’s… young man makeup. They’ve got sixty-something Morse in a bunch of make-up to look like fifty-year old. I’m not sure how they convinced Morse putting on five pounds of makeup would get him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting—in a stunt part—but maybe he just got a really nice swimming pool.

Anyway. Brooks. Brooks is somehow great. I mean, he’s not, because it’s a poorly written part in a poorly written movie but when it’s Brooks, you can believe Smith as the smartest man alive. You can also believe in when it’s Smith and Baldwin, but only because Baldwin’s unbelievable as a former NFL doctor turned whistleblower. He’s still somewhat amusing in the part, but more often than not it’s for hearing him still incapable of executing any sort of Southern accent with ability.

But Brooks. Brooks is kind of great.

Mbatha-Raw has fourteen to twenty lines so it barely matters what she does in the film. She’s there so Smith isn’t talking to himself in exposition dumps, instead Mbatha-Raw gets to hear them. She’s fine at hearing them. Likable even, especially since she gets the short end so often in the film thanks to Landesman.

The movie’s not just deflated in its take on the NFL, but American football in general. Like the real football footage the film constantly uses (though interspersed with shots of Morse sans some of the makeup but in younger man makeup even) is profoundly poorly cut. Baldwin will be comparing football to Shakespeare and the accompanying footage is no different than the footage they use to show the concussions happening.

The jingoism is also a lot. Also Landesman really overdoes it with the religiosity as a motivator for Smith’s resolve. But overdoes it in a special way… putting a lot of it in and then completely watering it down.

Because Landesman’s incompetent.

It’s toothless.

But Smith tries with enough sincerity it carries.

And Brooks is great. Kind of.

Between the two of them, it’s enough to Concussion across the finish. Even if the close is particularly weak.

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