Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Movie Review: The Blind Side (2009)


The Blind Side (2009)

Directed By:
John Lee Hancock

Starring:
Sandra Bullock: Leigh Anne Tuohy
Tim McGraw: Sean Tuohy
Quinton Aaron: Michael Oher
Kathy Bates: Miss Sue

Rating:


This Is What Happens When You Fuck a Stranger In the Ass

I guess I should just get it out of the way: I thought that The Blind Side was an awful, awful movie. That being said, I know the movie is based on the true story of Michael Oher, who went from homeless in Memphis to first round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, and I know that plenty of this movie's corniest moments are ripped straight from the pages of the book from which it came. That's fine. Within the proper context, scenes like the one where Oher informs his adoptive mother that he's never had a bed, let alone a bed of his own, are touching. The problem is that The Blind Side the movie is all moment and no context.

This does an incredible disservice to everybody involved in the story, though it's hardly surprising that Oher suffers the most. In a movie that is the story of his life, he is the piece of parsley that garnishes the plate. He isn't a person going through events so much as he's the MacGuffin in the personal events of some very well-meaning white people—their lives revolve around doing stuff to, with and for him, and his life is lived so that the white people have a project to work on.

As a young, disadvantaged boy from a Memphis project, Oher (Quinton Aaron) is taken to a Catholic school where he is accepted because the football coach sees him and realizes that big people make good linemen. As the product of a derelict public school system, Oher struggles in his new surroundings. He doesn’t participate in class, doesn’t do well on tests and, as the only black kid in an otherwise all-white school, doesn’t have any friends. His teachers make fun of him in the breakroom, quite oblivious to his plight, and he shuffles away from school every day with a plastic bag full of his belongings. One day, a kid named S.J. (Jae Head) talks to Mike in the playground. Lucky for him, that kid belongs to Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) who, without a moment’s pause, takes Mike into her home for the night. A night turns into awhile. Awhile turns into adoption.

While all that sounds good and interesting, the plot somehow manages to never rise above stock. There is no serious, in-depth examination of the relationship between Oher and, well, anybody. In fact, the minute Leigh Anne gets involved, the movie ceases to be about Oher at all and becomes a weird riff on Erin Brockovich, using football and Oher’s roots in the projects as a means to show both Leigh Anne’s strength and her tremendous ability to sass anything that moves.

The movie sacrifices a good bit of relevance in order to demonstrate how great Leigh Anne is. Some examples: At Mike’s first football game, the away team’s fans notice that Mike is black. Not only is he black, but he is nervous and misses his blocks. The away team’s fans, all white, start making fun of him, though no fan is more vocal than the father of the boy who is outplaying Oher. He drops some (decidedly P.C.) insults. Leigh Anne turns around, alludes to Deliverance, and tells him to shut up. He does. Later, Leigh Anne goes to Mike’s old projects, looking for him. She comes across the guy who leads that projects’ gangbangers. Just the night before, Mike and he got into an altercation where shots were fired. Leigh Anne gets no answers as to Mike’s whereabouts from him, so she storms off in a huff. He threatens Mike. Leigh Anne turns around, steps up to this angry man who fired shots at her adopted son, and says the following:

If you so much as set foot downtown you will be sorry. I'm in a prayer group with the D.A., I'm a member of the NRA and I'm always packing.


I’m sorry, but that’s exactly the kind of thing you say to a gangbanger (who, as I said, has already fired shots at one of her family members) if you want to get shot. However, the gangbanger watches her walk off, get into her car and calmly drive away without saying anything, as if he and Leigh Anne had just had a civil conversation about bed linen thread count claims over a couple of mimosas. I suspect he said nothing because he somehow knew that he’d never even be mentioned again, not even in a remote way, like a shot of Leigh Anne hyperventilating in a car because she was that close to being shot.

The rest of the movie continues operating in this way, leaving out any tangible sense of reality so that the Tuohys can continue along their merry way, hardly stopping to ponder the complications—be they social, familial, or physical, as when Mike crashes his new truck with S.J. inside—that their new son brings to the table. It’s all triumph, comedy, and moments where Leigh Anne learns something about Mike’s previous life to an overwrought spike in the music.

Eventually, she gets around to telling one of her casually racist lunch buddies that it’s Mike who is changing her life, and not the other way around. Oddly, the movie doesn’t seem to agree with Leigh Anne. A fun drinking game would be to take a shot every time Leigh Anne gives Mike something, Mike looks at her with grateful eyes, Leigh Anne asks if he’s never had that sort of comfort before, and Mike responds “no” sadly to a swell of the music and a small shake of Leigh Anne’s head. A less fun drinking game would be to take a shot every time something Mike did caused Leigh Anne to grow as a person. You’d have a full bottle by the time the credits rolled.

I guess my biggest objection to this movie is the way it treats Oher as a formless blob of clay just waiting to be shaped by whoever comes along and picks him up. To use a writing cliché, the movie is all tell and no show. This means that Oher isn't really given much to do. He plays football a little bit. He smiles with his new found family a lot. He is shown studying a couple of times. None of this shows you how Oher is improving, or how his life and the lives of Leigh Anne and her family are changing. The movie simply decides to tell you all of that. He sucked at football, but he got better. His grades were terrible, but they got better. He wasn't very sociable, but he got better. At no point in time does this movie stop to consider that it's audience doesn't need to be led by the hand through its incredibly simple plot points. Instead, it constantly stops to repeat itself and ask if we got it, if we understood it, and if we need a hug.

As far as performances go, they were fine. Not spectacular. Not transcendent. Just fine. There's not really much to do here beyond sticking to the script, and they all do so admirably, even when the script fails them. It really fails for Kathy Bates, who plays Mike's tutor. I thought it was bad when she introduced herself to the Tuohys as a Democrat (though that may be the punchline to an earlier observation that they had a black son before they'd even met a Democrat), but during the stretch of the movie when Mike is trying to decide between Tennessee and Ole Miss, she tells him very seriously that Tennessee stores dead bodies in it's football field, which spooks the holy hell out of Mike, who, for the umpteenth time in the film's two hours, is made to look like a complete idiot. In a movie that casually brushes aside racism with sass and heightened music, Bates' character somehow manages to be the worst offender without anybody noticing.

If The Blind Side had chosen to deal with its subject with any kind of weight or seriousness, it may have been a good film. Instead, it asked me to imagine a world where a dumb black kid with no skills beyond his off the charts scores in "protective instincts" is taken in without hassle by a white family who gave him everything he never had and bestowed upon him the skills of a prolific offensive lineman. It told me that college coaches fell in love with this kid due to carefully edited footage of one play during one game, that they rushed out to see him in one practice drill and that, based on that one drill, they decided to roll out the red carpet to him and S.J., his comic-relief sidekick. Above all else, it told me that all of this is magically solved by the intervention of a lone white woman whose wit and strength are the modern day equivalent to Moses' staff, leading him from the ghetto to the promised land with only a few small hiccups along the way.

The second the credits rolled, I Googled the phrase "How much of The Blind Side is really based on facts?" That's stupid and knee-jerk, I'll admit, but the movie was so patronizing and whitewashed that I couldn't help but feel as though big Mike was rescued from being homeless in Candyland. The only thing it's missing is the scene where Leigh Anne's kids ask if they can keep him.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent review.

    His attitude may have eventually changed, but I read that the real Michael Oher was kind of non-plussed about this movie. I would be too.

    It's kind of funny the trajectory this movie had. When any discerning viewer saw the ads for it, we all knew it would be exactly what it actually is. But some segment of the viewing population, and a certainly smaller section of the critical population, tried to convince us it was actually good. So when I went to see it, instead of expecting the movie I thought it would be, I actively tried to figure out the ways it was actually good. As you indicate very well here, I could not.

    Oh, and I too shook my head over the use of Kathy Bates' character. Shameful.

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  2. Yeah, and you'd think that somebody like Kathy Bates would know better, only her recent filmography suggests that she just doesn't care anymore.

    Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Could your nose get any higher in the air? Too earthy for you? Or not earthy enough? Not enough wretched souls spewing foul language. The crack whores weren't naked? No scenes of dogs copulating in the streets?

    One thing that many movie goers have learned, condescending reviews like this, that appear extracted from the truly out-of-touch publications like New Yorker Mag or the NY-Times, lets them know that most of us will thoroughly enjoy the movie! Word of mouth made this movie into a blockbuster.

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