Concussion is a nauseously portentous and preening two-hour slog. It is a real shame, because the real story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian pathologist who discovered a profoundly worrying trend (CTE) in the brains of veteran American football players, which resulted in a furore in which his discovery was more reviled than respected, deserves a much, much better film than this.
Will Smith really goes for it as Dr. Omalu. His accent, which has received a lot of snarky criticism, is not too shabby, at least to my ear. I honestly can’t tell you whether it sounds authentic. And nor, I suspect, can most of the people who seem to relish mocking it. Though I will say this: it does take a scene or two to get used to Will Smith adopting such an accent. After that, somewhat miraculously, you (or at least I) get immersed in his role pretty quickly.
Whether you enjoy the immersion is another matter entirely. The performance itself is rather good, although, like the majority of the performances, it is bathed in histrionics. We get breakdowns of the squirming “give-me-an-award!” variety. And pretty much every character seems devoid of facets. Or in other words, they are clichés with laughably specific functions.
One of which is Omalu’s lover, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The relationship is telegraphed when Omalu gives her a lingering look near the start of the film. It is all too contrived and perfunctory. And it escalates far too quickly: their love is solidified early on in an incongruous nightclub scene. As a result it becomes very hard to invest any real emotion in the pair. Nothing lands. For example, when Prema has a miscarriage, the scene should be heartbreaking. But it’s not, because the relationship is utterly unconvincing. Instead it comes across as a feeble attempt at melodrama. Or worse, a desperate and cynical attempt to get praise from blubbery housewives with a penchant for mawkishness. Patronise your audience and you risk its ire.
Will Smith is at his most riveting when he is forced to inveigh against the stubbornness of pugnaciously patriotic types who wax lyrical about the beauty of the game. This is evident in his “Tell the truth” speech, which is, without question, the best speech (and scene) in the film. Of course, a film about Omalu’s research is always going to be a preachy enough affair, but Smith really relishes scenes like this. If only it dispensed with the relationship, or kept it firmly in the background, we could have had a much meatier film.
Concussion really starts to fizzle out towards the end. Smith shows that he can demolish thin plaster and deliver cogent little encomiums about the grace and greatness of American football, despite his way of seeing only mushed brains when there’s contact in the game. Everything is hastily wrapped up and he just needs a halo above his head to really hammer it home. We get the truly scary statistic at the very end: “…that 28% of all professional football players will suffer from serious cognitive impairment, including CTE.” Now you don’t have to bother watching the film.
Dir: Peter Landesman
Scr: Peter Landesman
Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Albert Brooks, Luke Wilson, Eddie Marsan
Prd: Ridley Scott, Giannina Facio, David Woltroff, Larry Shuman, Elizabeth Cantillon
DOP: Salvatore Totino
Music: James Newton Howard
Run Time: 122 minutes
Concussion is out on DVD and Blu-ray now