Friday, January 22, 2016

Concussion vs. Joy: Is it fair to compare?


Our nation's greatest heroes include our movie stars; therefore a nomination for Best Actor or Actress is like being nominated as a hero. Are we being told that this year we have no black heroes?A line from the movie Concussion:

“When I was a boy...heaven was here—and America was here. You could be anything, do anything...”

Will in Concussion

Except be nominated as best actor in a movie with a ground-breaking subject, if you happen to be Will Smith in the second all-white year of Oscars. Whoops! Ground-breaking subject matter never had anything to do with whether a movie is good or not. Yet, it never hurts, as long as the subject-matter does not outweigh the story and the integrity of the movie.

(Spoilers from start to finish.)

Yes, I too am blinded by the white this year, and not completely snowed by the authentic talent of  Jennifer Lawrence and all the other glowing white skins walking around in JOY.

Jennifer in Joy

Of course it’s not fair to compare Joy to Concussion, and ludicrous to compare Jennifer Lawrence's performance to Will Smith's, but what's fair got to do with it? 

The two movies have several things in common: 

1. Neither were nominated for Best Movie,  (in spite of the fact of having one-word titles, which seems to be a strong factor this year).

2. They both were based on factual stories.

The great playwright Paddy Chayefsky, who won an Oscar for best screenplay based on factual material, said that a writer should remove everything that has no relevance to the story and --
if there’s a gun in the first scene, it should go off by the last.

In Joy, we have the scene where a gun is initially mentioned, and later the scene where a gun is shot and  yet, by movie’s end, we’re still waiting for the real bang. In Concussion, Will Smith is the gun that appears in the NFL world and by the movie's end more than one gun goes off with tragic results. More than one player appears to have committed suicide due to the anguish caused by this disease. Backstory discussed in this thought-provoking Chicago Trib piece about the politics of sports and how Concussion factors in.

Joy is a hero movie—woman invents a mop 

the real Joy Mangano, who is played by Jennifer

and succeeds against all odds to have it manufactured and ultimately make a lot of money on it.

Concussion is a hero movie—a forensic pathologist 

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is played by Will

discovers a dangerous and degenerative brain disease known as CTE in football players, and against all odds succeeds in naming the disease, making it known, which lead to the post-humous diagnoses of 87 of 91 former NFL players who had donated their brains to research.

There is no category of hero movies in the Academy Awards, and no actor has been nominated based on the social or political value of the movie he or she starred in. Yet, how many actors have been nominated for great performances in movies that are not worthy of a nomination. It is a given that a movie must have a certain amount of oomph, at least enough power to produce a role worth starring in.

Not every hero has to be a 

the movie Gandhi

Rosa Parks

It’s fine if the hero is a cartoon panda or an eighty year old human of any race, religion, sex or sexual preference in any state of mental or emotional or physical health.

I happen to like a hero movie where the hero becomes closer to his or her purpose, and as a result, to others; a door is opened that sometimes makes us feel redeemed for some of our own unsung efforts, or else opens a door for future courage—or simply makes us stand up and cheer, as one individual braves the world, and against all odds, succeeds.


This formula even applies to movies like Hangover 2—all the Jim Carey movies, and even the most obscure cult movies, from Donny Darko to Pee Wee’s Great Adventure to  Dancer in the Dark.

Both the Jennifer Lawrence character and the Will Smith character succeed through tenacity, and acts courage and by enduring. But I also want to see hearts grow, and the ways others are transformed around the hero, and what she or he brings to the world.

Joy brings a mop—and yes, a steely determination; but  for all Lawrence’s gifts, the script falls short of offering the source and visceral substance of this determination. It just comes upon her like a virus.

Too many devices and too little heartfelt emotion. Instead of a woman who was doing something for her kids as well as her own inner child—we more often see a narcissist and obsessive. Who is this cypher? If not for Jennifer’s soul what would this character be? It is often solely the actor who lends humanity to the work, rather than that divine movie magic we crave—where the actors mind mingles with the mind of the creator, or even the actual Joy who inspired this movie.

A movie maker has no responsibility except to have a vision and carry it out with integrity. Great movies never offer a dilemma and then gloss it over,  hoping it will pass as a nuance of human inconstancy or one of life’s ambiguities. It is not resolve that is called for, but integrity of vision, of story, of acting, of directing. Integrity and excellence allows for genuine ambiguity. All the elements in a winning movie serve the vision. The viewer’s disbelief is suspended from opening scene to closing credits—we are free to relax and trust rather than
use our brains to fill in the dots.

I just get the sense that there is more dirt underneath, hidden behind things, and some of it is good dirt, the fertile kind. We can’t wipe away our transgressions and issues of character with a bucket and mop, or fix them with a movie. I don’t want a movie to preach at me, or fix the world, but do not leap over serious issues with a wink and a nod, as if the cuteness of  the Focker /DeNiro character

Bonus quiz: is this Focker De Niro or Joy De Niro?

 will absolve him from hurling verbal abuse and shards of china throughout his family’s daily life. Do not expect me to believe that Joy maintains an otherworldly calm through every episode of disfunction in her family, or that the queer narration –( as intermittent as a weak radio signal)--of her grandma
forms the entire basis of her uncanny mental stability, until she cracks all at once and is seemingly relieved-- and begins her hero’s journey --all due to a vision induced by an overdose of expired children’s cough medicine. (although admittedly things like that have happened to me.)

Likewise, do not think the inclusion of a Hispanic friend, some warm and bubbly factory worker stereotypes and a strange plumber who shares bowls of weird substances with the character’s mom will cover all the bases of political correctness. After all, it is so hard to keep up with what’s correct these days! What—couldn’t squeeze a transgender person in there? To include a stereotype, a cardboard character who has no function beyond being a kind of placeholder for someone’s guilty conscience is as bad as profiling. 

Do we have Caucasian counterpart stereotypes in Concussion and times of bland characterization and overall arcs of less than substantial conflict where Smith must carry the day just as Lawrence does? You decide! 

Both Lawrence and Smith always or often bring it, because they are juicy humans and good actors. 
Never mind the critiques of same six expressions--they both have enough range and beauty to keep you watching and wanting to believe. But which do you believe more?

In the movie Concussion, in my opinion, the intense subject matter does not outweigh authentic character development, and hence allows the lead actor more breadth and depth of performance.

As for Joy, I am thrilled that a single mom with lots of bad breaks is celebrated for pushing through to believing in herself and her dreams and rising to success in spite of much adversity. As a subject-matter, it is potentially as powerful as any medical discovery--I only wish, in both cases, that the heroes behind these fictions would continue to live on in my heart due to the beauty of the movies, which includes, but can never be solely carried by the actors who depict them.

No comments: