'The Blind Side' May be 'Feel-Good,' but That's Not the Same as Feeling Real

20th Century Fox

Salt Lake City Weekly | November 17, 2009
The Blind Side offers a reminder that when it comes to "feel-good" filmmaking, generally there are those who bask uncritically in the warmth and chide detractors as heartless, and there are those who treat the mere idea of emotionalism as an indicator of artistic deficiencies. And as is typical in schisms of this kind, both sides of the argument are missing something.

Here's the thing: Brains and heart are not mutually exclusive creative elements. No sensible person can argue that Pixar's films aren't emotionally resonant and artistically brilliant; vintage cinema was filled with openly sentimental efforts that were still crafted with flair. A real-life, underdog-makes-good story like The Blind Side isn't inherently wonderful simply because it's a crowd-pleaser -- nor is it inherently terrible for the same reason.

No, The Blind Side turns out to be unimpressive for a much more conventional reason: It's simply a fairly lazy piece of movie-making. John Lee Hancock -- who previously explored similar fact-based sports drama territory in The Rookie -- here takes on the story of Michael Oher, currently in his rookie season as a left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. But before he made it to the NFL, Oher (newcomer Quinton Aaron) was a for-all-practical-purposes homeless teen in Memphis, notable mostly for his massive size. Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) -- the wife of a wealthy local fast-food franchise owner -- recognizes Oher's plight and takes him in, eventually helping him improve his academic performance enough that he is able to play high school football.

Indeed, it's a wonderfully warm and fuzzy narrative -- which actually is only part of the story told by Michael C. Lewis in the terrific non-fiction book on which The Blind Side is based. It was inevitable that Hancock would have to drop the rich historical backstory about the rising significance of the left tackle in pro football -- it's given a cursory nod in an opening sequence that revisits the leg-snapping sack that ended Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's career -- but that still should have left a somewhat complex exploration of whether a white family taking in a talented young black athlete might have ulterior motives.

That's not of tremendous interest to Hancock, apparently. He does have the intriguing case study of Oher, whose initial lack of on-field aggressiveness puzzles those who expect certain attitudes from poor black kids. And he has what could have been an equally intriguing case study in Leigh Anne, a no-nonsense Southern gal whose moral sense trumps her racist upbringing. But Oher is a mostly passive figure, and Bullock doesn't have the subtlety as a dramatic actor to make Leigh Anne anything more than a sassy speaker of punch lines and platitudes. Even after 127 minutes, it doesn't feel like The Blind Side has done much to get beneath the skin of these characters.

So what's left? Not much more than a conveniently formulaic underdog sports story. Hancock hits the obligatory plot elements -- the casual racism of the Tuohy's social circle; Oher's on-field improvement to big-time college prospect; his work to overcome academic troubles with the help of a feisty tutor (Kathy Bates) -- with a rosy glow and little more. While he touches on the tangled subject of the Tuohys' status as University of Mississippi athletic boosters, it's merely to offer a moment of conflict between Oher and Leigh Anne. And even though Hancock adds a ridiculous scene of Oher dealing with bad influences from the 'hood, thorny questions of race and privilege are basically sanded down so as to avoid making any audience member uncomfortable.

This, you see, is where an ostensibly "feel-good" movie instead can end up making someone just feel irritated. Hancock can put together a few individually effective scenes, like Oher's first big high school game, but throwing in half a dozen cameos by real-life college football coaches isn't the same as making a movie that feels grounded in the real world. The enemy isn't emotion; it's empty-headed uplift. And that's where Hollywood dramatizations have their own blind side.


** (2 out of 4 stars)

Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw

Rated PG-13

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