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Entries in Blind Side/The [2009] (1)

Sunday
Apr042010

The Blind Side (2009)

Black and White and Dead All Oher

The Blind Side is about two things I can’t stand: Southern Conservatives and football.

You may wonder, then, why I’d even bother watching the movie. There are three reasons: It was wildly successful in theatres last year (not every heartwarming sports movie is a box office smash); it garnered star Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar; finally, I love a challenge. Could a film about which I have zero interest (and, honestly, some latent animosity) win me over? Could it be that—much like my experience with Precious—the awful trailers actually represented a smart, honest and moving film?

I’m happy to report that, sometimes, my instincts are tack-sharp. I’d suspected that Bullock, playing real-life Memphis spitfire Leigh Anne Tuohy, might come off as an obnoxious, caustic cartoon character; during the film’s two-plus-hours run-time, she plays the worst kind of good-old-girl, feelings-are-for-pussies stereotype you’d ever hope to meet; and she’s the hero!

And make no doubt about it: The Blind Side is not the story of a poor, abused black kid who overcomes adversity when given a leg up by a wealthy white family; it’s the story of the wealthy white family and their Christian school learning that all the diamond-studded crosses in the world aren’t worth a lick if there is even one undiscovered pro-athlete struggling in the projects across town. Director John Lee Hancock would have you believe that this is an autobiography of both Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) and Leigh Anne Tuohy, but the Oher character is such an inconsistent, mumble-mouthed cypher that I frequently forgot that I was not watching E.T.

The movie begins with Tuohy talking about Lawrence Taylor’s career. The only thing that relates this really boring story to the rest of the film is that Taylor played football and the monologue contains the phrase “the blind side”. We then meet Michael Oher, a hulking seventeen-year-old boy who sleeps on the couch of a local auto mechanic. One day, the mechanic visits a private school in the rich part of town and convinces football coach Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon) to have a look at his son and at Oher as possible athletic prospects.

After meeting some resistance from the school council, the coach reminds everyone that the school is a Christian institution, and that they were obligated to overlook their prejudices and help out a kid in need. In a real movie, this would have led to either A) the coach being fired on the spot, or B) a fascinating examination of race relations, as the school opened its doors to everyone in the community, regardless of color, circumstance, or financial means and providing them a top-of-the-line education—you know, what Jesus would have done. But since this is The Blind Side, Oher simply gets in—and the mechanic’s other kid is only ever seen again in the audience at Oher’s graduation.

Oher walks the halls in the same clothes every day; he doesn’t speak to the other kids, who all look at him like a freak or a menace. His teachers all give up on him very easily, save for one, who discovers that he has a gift for writing poetry. A real movie would have explored Oher’s secrets in a way that reveals whether or not he’s stupid, autistic, or brilliant and paralyzed by social awkwardness.

Instead, we get brief glimpses of him being taken from his drug-addicted mother ten years earlier and inconsistent scenes where he is apparently too dumb to understand a poem unless it’s broken down into a football metaphor, while also doing pretty well in Biology. In one scene, he’s confidently driving Leigh Anne’s young son, S.J. through town in the brand new truck they gave him for getting his driver’s license; a few scenes later, he’s struggling to understand why an NCAA rep finds it suspicious that he’s been accepted to the very college that the Tuohy family graduated from, and to which they donate a considerable amount of money. In brief, the Michael Oher presented here is alternately, conveniently, empty-headed and insightful, usually depending on whatever point the Tuohy family is trying to prove to either themselves or their stuffy, ill-informed community.

I might have been okay with The Blind Side’s focus on the Tuohy’s if it was clear that their adoption of Michael was somehow a disruptive force in their lives. Hell, I’d settle for any kind of force. One night, Leigh Anne and her brood are driving home (home, by the way, being a ridiculous McMansion paid for by husband Sean’s hundreds of Taco Bell franchises and Leigh Anne’s interior decorating hobby [sorry, I mean “legitimate business”]; rhetorical musing here: what’s the Taco Bell equivalent of a McMansion? Taquito Terrace? Burrito Bungalow? Guacamole Getaway, maybe?) when they see Oher walking in the rain. They offer him a place to stay for the night, and eventually take him in as a member of the family. The Oher’s have two kids already, S.J., and a teenage daughter named Collins (yes, Collins). One might think that introducing a wholly unknown element into the daily family routine would involve long serious discussions, possibly some fights, definitely some tears or uncertainty; but, no, the Tuohy’s are the sparkling definition of the perfect, Christian family, and Michael’s arrival and transition are as fluid as water off a duck’s back. Jesus, I don’t recall anyone so much as raising their voice in that household (except for adorable little freckle-faced S.J., when he would yell something really sweet and precocious).

From a storytelling standpoint, the first half of the movie is pretty awful; but that’s nothing compared to the second half. Michael gets his grades up to the minimum required to join the football team. After that, we have an hour of his deciding which fucking college to attend. An hour. As if there were any dramatic tension for the audience.

Sure, we also have little vignettes where Michael has to get a tutor to boost his grades some more (that tutor being the lovely and criminally mis-used Kathy Bates, who admits to the Tuohy’s that she’s a Democrat; this is the kind of movie where that actually matters to the characters—and, I suspect, to the majority of people who made the picture a hit); we also see Michael return to his old neighborhood and get in a fight with a gang of thugs. Even though he has several guns drawn on him, he pummels everyone and walks away unscathed; it is during this scene that The Blind Side makes a Donnie Darko-esque transition into science fiction—the switch is confirmed when, the next day, Leigh Anne Tuohy happens upon the same thugs while driving her rich-ass car through the ghetto (a ghetto named, I shit you not, Hurt Village). She, too, leaves unharmed, after threatening to kill the gang’s leader. Hey, this movie’s based on a true story, so that had to have actually happened, right? Right?

There’s not one true note in this movie, and I’m astonished that so many people fell for its alleged charms. I would rather have watched a by-the-numbers biopic than John Lee Hancock’s tortured attempt to build something profound and different. He’s obviously not up to the task, and neither is his cast. As Oher, Quinton Aaron has the thankless job of being the big black elephant in the room. Like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, he’s the Magic Negro who helps the rest of the cast figure out how great they are; but at least Smith had presence. Aaron, who’s twenty-six playing seventeen, skulks around like a puppy-dog Frankenstein monster; when he opens his mouth, it sounds as if he’s auditioning, not embodying a troubled character.

But my true disgust is reserved for Miss Sandy. How in the world she landed an Oscar for this gig is beyond me. Granted, the screenplay didn’t help flesh out her version of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s dimensions, but, damn, is she unpleasant; and I’m talking start to finish. Maybe the strong, Southern, no-nonsense woman is meant to appeal to someone, but where I come from, she’d simply be dismissed as a bitch. I would love to hear the real Tuohy—if, indeed, this is how she carries herself on a daily basis—reconcile her alleged Christian beliefs with the way she talks to people.

Yes, it’s nice that she opened up her home to Oher, but I might consider the street preferable to living under her mouthy, bossy roof. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was even supposed to like this character, acting as she does the way a movie villain might; but when she meets Oher for the first time, a piano begins to play on the soundtrack, and I was heartbroken to realize I was supposed to find this person to be acceptable the way she was. Bullock is one-note here, and it’s a shrill one. If she spent a lot of time preparing for this role, then I take back every lousy thing I’ve said about her soon-to-be-ex-husband Jesse James in recent weeks.

Maybe I’m wrong for expecting more out of movies like this. Maybe I’m wrong for thinking that the Tuohy family, had they truly been moved by Oher’s plight, started some community outreach for the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhood he came from. If they did this in real life, the movie doesn’t think it’s important for us to know. It only cares about football and the warm, fuzzy feelings engendered by helping one kid (and only one kid) make lots of money playing sports.