2009 will stand as a defining year for Sandra Bullock. First there was the awful yet mysteriously successful The Proposal, followed by the misguided farce All About Steve which was dumped into cinemas after being delayed by a year (for which the actress earned a Razzie award for Worst Actress). In the shadow of these movies arrives The Blind Side, featuring Bullock in a performance that earned her an Academy Award. Armed with a too-good-to-be-true inspirational tale, The Blind Side was created with two goals: to shamelessly move an audience, and to snag Bullock an Oscar. Needless to say, a film of this sort requires a deft touch in order for it to work, but such talent eludes writer-director John Lee Hancock and his cast who ladle on sentiment with the subtlety of a bazooka. The movie is, quite simply, pure Hollywood fluff, and the fact it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture is one of the most insulting decisions of recent memory.
The Blind Side is loosely based on a sports book of the same name by Michael Lewis, which detailed the rise to prominence of the Left Tackle position in professional football. The movie’s prime narrative aim was to tell a Hollywoodised version of the story of Michael Oher (Aaron); an NFL pro who started out as a near-homeless African-American teenager, and whose life is turned around when a local family, the Tuohys, decide to essentially adopt him. Naturally, the fact that Michael is black and his adoptive family are white is the movie’s “hook”.
In essence, the entire story here seems to be more of a caricature than an accurate portrayal of a true story. The Blind Side gives lip service to the sports-history context, but opts to concentrate on Oher’s story without actually concentrating on the man himself. John Lee Hancock has instead reworked the story into a star vehicle for Bullock, whose hard-charging Leigh Anne is shown off, admired and allowed to steal every scene. As a matter of fact, Oher is more or less incidental to a story that’s framed less around him and more around the family that adopts him and pushes him to success. Oher is a spectre in his own tale: a one-dimensional “big lug with a heart” caricature whose sole purpose in the narrative is to make his benefactors feel better about themselves. The narrative may concern Oher’s life being turned around, but the story is about how encountering Michael made his adoptive mother a more enlightened, socially-aware human being. What the fuck?!
All of The Blind Side’s many other sins - the trite, artificial sentiment, the generic structure, and the overall “feel-good” aura of the whole enterprise - could be forgiven if only it was effective, but it’s about as effective as run-of-the-mill, sanitised Disney fluff (which is hardly surprising, since Hancock is also responsible for The Rookie). The film never ventures below the surface - Hancock shows a series of kind acts but never delves into the ramifications of the actions of the Tuohys or explores more complicated socioeconomic issues. It’s clear that Oher’s early life, with a crack-addict mother and an absentee father, must have been very difficult, but these powerful aspects of the story are glossed over in favour of a more conventional movie for easier mass consumption. What’s more unforgivable is the out-of-nowhere “what the fuck?!” scenes featuring events that never happened but are included for the sake of formula. At one stage, for instance, Oher defeats a bunch of neighbourhood crack dealers using his bare hands even though they all have guns. It’s like something out of a Jason Statham action movie. Later on, Bullock’s Leigh Anne goes all Erin Brokovich on the same crack dealers, and defeats them through sheer force of word. Added to this, there are several embarrassingly cheesy moments that seem directly lifted from Disney movies.
Playing Michael Oher, Quinton Aaron’s performance is understated and appealing. But alas, this is Sandra Bullock’s movie, and though it’s her best work as an actress to date, it’s still not worth an Oscar. More or less a surface impersonation than anything truly profound, Bullock’s turn as Leigh Anne was obviously played to garner Oscar consideration because she not only steals her scenes but also eats the scenery. It’s a self-serving performance which undercuts the story’s potential power, as the spotlight frequently shifts to Bullock and away from Aaron whenever they share a scene, which is often. The fact Bullock earned an Oscar for this performance is downright disgraceful - there’s absolutely nothing about it that makes it anything but ordinary.
With the myriad of criticisms in mind, it’d be fair to point out the aspects that are done right. To director Hancock’s credit, the movie is not excruciating - it’s easy to watch, well-assembled and the soundtrack is pleasant. From a technical standpoint, this is a home run. The problem with Hancock’s approach, however, is it sorely lacks grit. In this way, The Blind Side is Precious for a family-friendly audience. While Lee Daniels’ Precious was gritty and grimy, The Blind Side is firmly in PG-13 territory, meaning everything is toned down. By eluding the deeper issues of the tale, Hancock has only crafted a feel-good, crowd-pleasing quick-hit aimed at the mass market. While it may be serviceable in this way, it’s frustrating to consider what the source material could’ve been in defter hands.
Interview: Kelly Wilson author of For the Love of Horses: The Wilson Sisters' Inspiring Journey to Save New Zealand's Wild Horses
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