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Monday, February 08, 2010

The Blind Side

I hadn't planned on seeing The Blind Side, at least not in a theater. But then it up and got nominated for Best Picture, and I got the itch, the one that tells me I need to see every Best Picture nominee before the Oscar ceremony. I don't feel the need to see the films nominated in all the categories--I still haven't seen The Mirror Has Two Faces, for example--but something would be gnawing at me if I let this one go.

After watching the film something that all people who are serious about cinema understand was reinforced to me. There are two ways of experiencing pleasure with films: you can be challenged by them, or you can be reassured. Most popular films at the box office do the latter, and why not? Life is hard, why add to that by spending your leisure time contemplating the various problems of humanity? An action film that eventually dispatches bad guys, a romantic comedy that puts the leads together, or an escapist fantasy that does both is balm for troubled times. You can add to that mix the immensely successful The Blind Side, which appeals to our sense of charity and fair play, and allows us to leave the theater feeling righteous and maybe a little choked up. No wonder it made a mint.

What The Blind Side is not is good art. It doesn't have an authentic minute of action, or a moment that couldn't be predicted. It follows a certain path like a blind donkey down a cart path, its conflicts manufactured but not really threatening, and none of its characters exhibit the slightest introspection. It's not really a movie, more of a concoction of emotional grabs, and when considered on those terms it is effective. But to nominate it for an Academy Award is an insult.

The film is about a homeless teen who--strike that, it's not about the teen, who would go on to become an All-American football star and is now a professional on the Baltimore Ravens--it's about the woman who took him into her family off the rough and tumble streets of Memphis and enabled him to become the success he is. I say this because the character of Michael Oher, as played by the actor Quinton Aaron, is something of an afterthought in the film. He's an object on which all the collective guilt of America can be projected. At one point in the film a friend of Leigh Ann Tuohy, who would become Oher's surrogate mother, asks her if it's white guilt. It may not have been for the real Tuohy, but it certainly is for the film.

I did not hate this movie, by any means, and I kind of liked the first half hour or so, as it established that Oher was accepted into a Christian high school mainly because he was so big that he would be a good football player. He's so withdrawn, though, that even if he's not stupid his grades suffer. When Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, drives by him walking underdressed on a cold night, invites him to stay the night that the film starts to turn mawkish, like curdling milk. From then on the film really only functions as a form of congratulations to the Tuohy clan, who selflessly opened their huge mansion to this boy, and then rooted him on to greatness on the football field.

How could this film have been better? For one thing, it should have focused on Oher, not Tuohy. We really never know what he's thinking. The film is structured as a flashback, from a moment when an NCAA investigator asks him if he thinks he was adopted only for his football prowess (he has decided to go to Ole Miss, the Tuohy's alma mater). The character seems to awaken from a deep slumber, and for one brief moment questions his foster family's motives. Up until that moment, the character had been treated as if he were the family pet, a bear not unlike Gentle Ben, who they'd felt sorry for as it poked around in their trash.

No, Oher plays second fiddle in this story to Bullock's Tuohy, who has played it like some sort of crusading angel. Many of have commented that this is Bullock's Erin Brockovich, but at least that film gave the character in question a depth that is missing here. Bullock's character is a sassy Southern woman, a successful interior decorator and busybody (she seems to be involved in everything from the football team to the cheerleading squad) who never has a doubt of her own moral superiority. This results in some embarrassingly bad scenes, like one in which she is in some sort of government office and bullies her way to the front of the line, telling the employees that they are too busy goofing off. That the woman behind the desk doesn't have her bodily removed from the premises is one of the more fantasy-inspired moments of the film.

Bullock is seen to be the front-runner for Best Actress, an unfortunate situation that may be a fait accompli. I'll discuss this more during my predictions, but if she wins it won't be because she gave a good performance. It's a competent one, and suits the limitations of the film, but it is one without shading. The running gag is that the character is a forceful person who has a hard time admitting she's wrong. But even people like that have inner doubts, at least they do in a drama. The only crisis Bullock goes through is when Oher, convinced he's been used, goes on the lam, retreating to the projects in search of his mother. Of course what he finds there is nothing but drugs and guns, and he quickly returns to the soft bosom of his upple-middle-class saviors, reinforcing for us all our belief that well-manicured lawns and ownership of eighty-five Taco Bells are the building blocks to happiness.

A few more annoying aspects of the film: the Tuohy's youngest child is an irrepressible boy, played by Jae Head, who seems to have escaped from a bad family sit-com. The other kid is a teen daughter, Lily Collins, who is given little to do except look good (there's a scene in which Bullock asks if she's okay with Oher staying there, which comes out of leftfield, as the script and performance indicate nothing). Sticking with that, one of Bullock's friends wonders about any sexual tension between Oher and Collins, a reasonable question, but Bullock shoots her a death stare and says she should be ashamed. Why, exactly?

The film was written and directed by John Lee Hancock, who made a good sports movie, The Rookie. It's a shame that this one, based on a book by Michael Lewis that I hear is good, took an interesting story and turned it into a Hallmark card celebrating the self-congratulatory nature of middle-class America.

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