Concussion Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Directed by Peter Landesman. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
As an actor, Will Smith is defined by his laid-back, breezy manner—in a word, he’s cool. Concussion, his latest film, strips him of that armor to some degree, which is the only mildly interesting thing about it. For one thing, he can’t use his regular voice, as he’s playing a Nigerian immigrant: Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who first identified a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Smith nails Omalu’s lilting accent, and doing so forces him to dial his aggressive charm way back; it’s one of the few recent films in which he’s striving for something more than a variation on his standard persona.
Unfortunately, he’s also stuck playing a plaster saint. First seen reciting his formidable academic résumé while testifying in court, Omalu comes pretty close to being the Patch Adams of the morgue—he doesn’t tell jokes or wear clown noses, but he does talk to all the corpses he dissects, urging them to help him determine what caused their death. In the case of a recently deceased Pittsburgh Steelers center (David Morse), it turns out that a lifetime of head-on collisions—even when wearing a helmet—may have slowly robbed the man of his sanity, leaving him broke, homeless and confused. Other similar NFL cases surface, and soon Omalu is receiving intimidating phone calls from people with a vested interest in making sure scary reports of brain injuries don’t shut down America’s most beloved violent sport.
Writer-director Peter Landesman (Parkland) lays all this out strictly by the numbers, with Omalu and a couple of other doctors (played by Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks) representing moral conviction and just about everybody else embodying sleazy corporate (or corporate-beholden) evasiveness. At one point, the movie even ludicrously implies that Omalu’s pregnant wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) loses her baby due to the stress brought on when she’s stalked by NFL goons. One need only compare this film’s deadly dull protagonist to, say, Meryl Streep’s Karen Silkwood to see what a difference credible human frailty can make. A Nigerian accent, however well executed, just isn’t enough.