The Blind Side (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The Blind Side offers a reminder that when it comes to "feel-good" filmmaking, generally there are two sides: those who bask uncritically in the warmth and chide "heartless" detractors, and those who treat the mere idea of emotionalism as an artistic deficiency. And as is typical in such schisms, both sides are missing something.
Here's the thing: Brains and heart are not mutually exclusive. No sensible person can argue that Pixar films aren't emotionally resonant and artistically brilliant. Vintage cinema was filled with openly sentimental efforts that were crafted with flair. So, an underdog-makes-good story like The Blind Side isn't inherently wonderful or terrible simply because it's a crowd-pleaser.
No, The Blind Side is unimpressive for a much more conventional reason: It's simply a lazy piece of movie-making. John Lee Hancock — who explored similar fact-based sports territory in The Rookie — here takes on the story of Michael Oher, currently a first-year left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. But before making it to the NFL, Oher (played by newcomer Quinton Aaron) is an often-homeless teen in Memphis, notable mainly for his massive size. Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the wife of a wealthy fast-food franchise owner, sees the teen's plight, takes him in, and gets him the academic help that allows him to bring up his grades and play high school football.
Indeed, it's a warm and fuzzy narrative, but only part of the story told by Michael Lewis in the terrific nonfiction book of the same name. Not surprisingly, Hancock had to drop the rich backstory about the rising role of the left tackle in pro football, but that still should have left a fairly 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 of Michael, 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 Leigh Anne, a no-nonsense Southern gal whose moral sense trumps her racist upbringing. But Michael is a mostly passive figure, and Bullock doesn't have the subtlety to make Leigh Anne anything more than a sassy speaker of punchlines and platitudes. Even after 127 minutes, it doesn't feel like The Blind Side has gotten beneath its characters' skins.
So what's left? Mostly, a formulaic underdog sports story. Hancock hits the obligatory plot elements — the casual racism of the Tuohys' social circle; Michael's rise to big-time college prospect; his work with 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 brief conflict between Michael and Leigh Anne. And even though Hancock adds a ridiculous scene of Michael dealing with bad influences from the 'hood, most thorny questions of race and privilege are sanded down.
This, you see, is how an ostensibly "feel-good" movie can end up making someone just feel irritated. Hancock can put together a few effective scenes, like Michael's first big high school game, but throwing in cameos by real-life college coaches isn't the same as making a movie that's 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.