Monday, April 4, 2016

"Joy" and "Concussion"

I know what you're thinking: more Oscar bait.  And yes, these two films were released in late December to position them for consideration for awards season.  But keep in mind that biopics probably wouldn't get made anymore if they couldn't be in contention for the Oscars.  And that's a sad fate for a perfectly good genre of films that continues to consistently yield good things.  "Joy" and "Concussion" are not great biopics, but they are highly watchable, interesting films that both feature excellent central performances.

Up first we have "Joy," the third collaboration between David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence.  And despite its slightness and its messiness, it's an enjoyable one.  Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, a single mother stuck in a dead-end job who has had to put her dreams on hold in order to support her mess of a family.  This includes father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), mother Terri (Virginia Madsen), and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), who is living in her basement.  One day Joy has an idea for a self-wringing mop, and decides to become an entrepreneur, manufacturing and selling the mops herself.  However, getting production going, finding willing buyers, and evading all the crooks and swindlers in her path is daunting.  Joy has to fight for everything - and often against everyone.

There are a lot of things that don't work in "Joy."  It's full off oddball characters who don't all fit, and weird, half-baked conceits.  David O. Russell stuffs a scene of soap opera kitsch into the opening, perhaps trying to signal that he's self-aware of how melodramatic the story is, that just comes across as bizarre and out of place.  His talented ensemble is often reduced to a pack of broad caricatures, especially as he loves to have them all shouting at once in intense situations.  And, as many viewers have noted, Jennifer Lawrence is at least a decade too young to be playing Joy Mangano.  However, this doesn't stop her from being excellent in the role.  She and Bradley Cooper, who shows up in the second act as a QVC executive, manage to keep the wobbly movie on track and upright all the way to the feel-good finish. 

I'm afraid the Lawrence and Russell partnership has hit the point of diminishing returns.  Russell has given his leading lady some excellent parts, and Joy Mangano is no exception, but I desperately want both of them to move on to other things.  Russell is trying, but he's made a romantic comedy, a heist film, and now a Horatio Alger Lifetime movie that all essentially feel like the same film, with the same awful loudmouth characters and haphazard scripting.  Lawrence, meanwhile, has been stuck either playing a teenager or a thirty-something for the past several years, and desperately needs some parts that are actually appropriate for her.  I haven't seen her in anything since "Silver Linings Playbook" that's been a good fit.  In "Joy," it feels like they're both treading water.  It's a pleasant, inoffensive diversion, but I know it's well below what either are capable of.

Then we have "Concussion," a far more by-the-numbers piece of work, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist.  If you've heard anything about the film, you likely know that it's about Omalu's discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in professional football players, and his struggle to get the condition recognized and taken seriously in the face of serious opposition by the NFL.  The film is built around Omalu, using his personal life and career struggles as subplots.  Smith delivers a strong performance, one of his best in a while, and I'm a little perturbed that viewers seem to be getting hung up on the Nigerian accent he adopts for the part.  He also has some good support from Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks as other doctors, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his love interest, Prema.

"Concussion" sticks pretty close to the usual man against the system template, playing up Omalu's uncompromising nature and the suffering of the dead players who were found to have CTE.  Unfortunately, though writer/director Peter Landesmann delivers a perfectly watchable film, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as the "Frontline" documentary I saw on the subject a few years ago, or the articles that have chronicled the continuing impact of the discovery on the NFL.  I suspect that the biggest problem is the way the film was structured.  Though we spend some time with the doomed football players, we never get to know them in any particular depth, so the stakes are never established beyond what others tell us are the stakes. 

The film is ultimately not about the disease, but about the doctor who discovered it, and that's a very different story.  It's well told, at least, and I found that the low-key romance between Omalu and Prema, both immigrants from Africa, was an unexpected highlight.  "Concussion" works nicely as a small scale character piece, and I wish that could have been what it wanted to be from the start.  As a social issue film, it's fairly benign and toothless.  There have been rumors of the NFL tampering, but I suspect the more fundamental problems with the script are the more likely culprits.


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