Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian doctor who made public his discovery that football players have been suffering from mind scrambling concussions. His declaration is controversial and puts him at odds with both the NFL and fans of the sport.
What “Concussion” wants to do is recreate the doctor’s challenging discoveries and courageous journey to be heard, as well as provide a critical, even scathing look at the sport of football and how the business treats its players. These are noble concepts that are out reach for this movie, which is, oddly, both grim and not hard hitting enough. I can’t imagine that anyone who lives for Monday Night Football will be changed by this. I wasn’t challenged by the film’s content, just its lack of entertainment value.
Smith works the accent but he’s not playing Dr. Omalu as much as he’s trying his hardest to channel Sidney Poitier, who could have played this role with both hands tied behind his back. I love Smith as an actor- his work in “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Ali,” “The Pursuit of Happyness” and even “I Am Legend” demonstrate a compelling, hard working performer. Unfortunately, “Concussion” is the please-gimme-an-Oscar-already, trying-too-hard Smith of “Seven Pounds.”
It begins with a twinkle in its eye, with Smith’s establishing scene working overtime to make him adorable. Then, the story takes on the tone of a conspiracy thriller, while aiming to somehow be a feel good movie about triumphing over adversity, a medical drama, a love story, and a quasi- finger wagging at the NFL.
The early scenes with David Morse acting crazy are unpleasant but overdone and, if they reflect what really happen, exploitative. Morse goes full tilt crazy in the role but showing him electrocute himself to sleep is too much.
The love story is so tame, it makes the romantic subplot in “Creed” look like “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Smith has no chemistry with Gugu-Mbatha Raw, whose sad scene in a hospital late in the film is one of the few with any real punch.
Writer/director Peter Landesman captures the story with gloss and immediacy but his characters all speak like hack screenwriters and not like human beings. Most of Smith’s lines in particular are too on-the-nose: “God never intended man to play football.” Or Baldwin’s trailer-ready remark to Smith that “you turned on the light and gave their biggest boogeyman a name.”
While “Concussion” is critical of football, it’s also oddly a celebration of all things NFL. The focus queasily alternates back and forth, from cautioning football players of head trauma, then showing the game as a celebrated American ritual. The image of families viewing the game together as a bonding experience is both applauded and demonized. We see players at their peak, and later losing their minds. There is a strong point to be made about all of this, but the film is too commercial, heavy handed and formulaic to land the narrative tackle it needs to makes. A no-holds-barred documentary that named names and went for the throat might have made a real impact. As a Will Smith movie, it never feels like anything more than a vehicle for the Fresh Prince to show off.
“Concussion” is a long slog and sometimes laughable, with one of the worst titles ever chosen for a mainstream movie. The GQ article it’s based on was titled “Game Brain,” which is also bad but at least isn’t a single word meaning “a blow to the head.” The late December timing of the release is equally bizarre. Why would families want to see football players go nuts and threaten their families over Christmas break?