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Movie of the Day: The Blind Side (2009)

05 Mar

BlindSide

The opening scene of The Blind Side successfully establishes a football analogy that, for someone unlearned in the game (like me), helps to explain the game from the coach’s point of view.  Over footage of Joe Theissman’s gruesome 1985 career-ending compound fracture, the narration tells us that “The first check you write is for the mortgage, and the second is for the insurance. The left tackle’s job is to protect the quarterback from what he can’t see coming.  To protect his blind side.”  That analogy comes from Leigh Ann Tohey, who is set up as our guide for the rest of the film.  Her explanation had me nodding my head.  Something of the strength of the game is held in that tiny moment.  Unfortunately this is the only scene in the movie that works.

The Blind Side is based on a true story, yet it has all the dramatic subtlety of a squeaky chainsaw.  Every moment feels manipulated for our enjoyment, with no thought to the free-flow of real life.  Heroic characters and their naysayers are set up like pins in a bowling alley.  The good guys bowl down the naysayers and that’s that.  Here is a movie that has the potential to tell a great story, but avoids challenging us with hard truths by burying reality in a vat of pitiful easy clichés and over melodramatic punches.  This is melodrama at about a 4th grade level.

Bullock plays Leigh Ann Tohey, who is one of those southern women who always gets her way by talking sassy and making big speeches.  She has one of those beautiful, smiling families that you usually see in coffee commercials.  By her side is husband Sean (Tim McGraw) who has the sole function of reminding others that this little Philly always gets her way.  Their daughter is pretty teenaged Collins (Lily Collins) whose sole function is to be pretty and teenaged.  And there’s little S.J. (Jae Head), a freckle-faced kid who is so precocious and irritating that he brings the whole movie to a screeching halt.  Imagine the early years of Jar Jar Binks and you’ve got the idea.  They live in one of those grand sprawling estates where everything is spotless and sunlit like a magazine cover.

The story kicks off when Leigh Ann and Sean notice a sad-eyed black kid walking home in the rain.  Leigh Ann takes pity on this poor kid and offers him a room in their home.  He is Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), the son of a crack addict whose sad life has been a rotating series foster homes throughout Memphis, nearly all of which he has run away from.  Before his solemn stroll in the rain, he got help to get into Wingate Christian School despite a disastrous academic record.  He got in because the coaches at the school were convinced that he could revive their sorry excuse for a football team.  Mike accepts Leigh Ann’s offer and is soon living at the Tohey house where the family adopts him as one of their own.  Leigh Ann notices that he has protective instincts and decides that his wide girth might make him a great defensive tackle.  No points for guessing that he is a natural on the football field.

The scenes on the football field should be the center of the film.  Unfortunately, very little of what happens on the field is of any interest.  Those scenes never have any tension or dramatic impact.  We never feel as if we’re watching a team.  The scenes are set up as if Michael is the center and the other guys (who we never see in the cold light of day) are there to support him.  Football scenes in the movies are among the most difficult to get right.  Like battle scenes, there needs to be strategy, placement, logic so that we can follow the action in order to get a sense of the dramatic tension.  Here, director John Lee Hancock takes the easy way out.  He focuses on squarely on Michael as a way of avoiding dealing with anyone else.  In one scene he sets up a night game with Michael on one team and a loud-mouthed racist kid on the other (who has an equally loud-mouthed racist father in the stands).  The scene is set up so that Michael can knock he kid over the fence.  Why was that necessary?  Why create such an offensive and clichéd character that is set up for a cheap and easy payoff?

The reason, I’m afraid, is that the movie wants to get the audience on its side.  Instead of trusting their intelligence, it manufactures phony situations for an easy pay off.  The good characters in the movie are saintly, while the negative characters are hateful scorns or one-dimensional dummies.  Take, for example, the coach at Wingate.  His name is Cotton (Ray McKinnon) and his sole function in the film is to say and do the wrong thing so that Leigh Anne can prove him wrong.  He stands at the sidelines looking perplexed.  After a while you wonder how he ever became a coach in the first place.

The one saving grace in the film is Sandra Bullock who maintains her dignity in the midst of terminal dreck.  She looks great, she photographs just right but her character in this movie is given scenes that make no sense or are outside the boundaries of reality.  One unbelievable moment has her marching down the projects and getting in the face of a gangbanger who has threatened Michael.  She’s allowed to walk away from that situation, get in her car and drive home.  Yeah, not gonna happen.

The basic problem with The Blind Side is that it is so sanctimonious.  Every single emotional high point is rung like the bell at the strength-tester at the county fair.  The fact that this is based on a true story means nothing because the screenwriters haven’t been honest with us.  This is a movie that beats you over the head wit its own good-heartedness. You’ll need an antacid when it is over.

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