Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Blind Side

Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, Lily Collins, Jae Head, Ray McKinnon

Running Time: 128 min.

Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When the 82nd annual Academy Award nominations were announced on February 2nd, there was an obvious eruption of giggles, gasps, and applause when the feel-good, audience pleasing sports drama The Blind Side was read among the expanded list of ten Best Picture contenders. And you'd really have to go way back in the Oscar history books to find a nomination in this category as shocking. It's been heralded as a major comeback vehicle for its star, Sandra Bullock, who's poised to take home the statue for Best Actress after making a string of career decisions so awful they'd make Kate Hudson jealous. In fact, they've been so bad that not too long ago I included her on my list of Actors/Actresses Who Need a New Agent (Badly!). In a way, I regret the negative connotation that article's title carried because in truth I really like all those talented performers, which could help explain why I'm so reasonably disappointed in them.

When I first saw that commercial for The Blind Side, with Bullock strutting across the football field in skin tight Erin Brockovich-style clothing and a blond wig, slapping the coach's butt (you can't say "ass" in this movie) and declaring in a laughable southern accent, "You can thank me later," I no longer thought she needed a new agent. I thought her career was over. But when the film was released something very weird happened: A project that at first glance looked to represent the absolute worst of Bullock's cinematic offerings somehow resonated deeply with moviegoers. With a marketing campaign aimed squarely at church going, red state Americans and extremely strong word-of-mouth (despite middling reviews) the film went on to gross over $200 million dollars to become the highest grossing sports drama of all-time. It's a statistic sure to irk fans of Rocky, Rudy and Hoosiers since this actually has very little to do with sports, or more specifically football, in any real sense. Consider it "Friday Night Lite."

The Academy's desire to reach out to the mainstream and increase viewership for the big show has brought this picture to where it is now. I've made many jokes at the film's expense over the past few months but they were all in good fun and never mean-spirited even as online attacks from others against it were growing increasingly venomous, I really do think it's fantastic that a personal human drama with a positive message is succeeding. And while you could argue it's continuing a recent trend in diminishing audience standards (true to an extent) and that they're just filling the Best Picture slot with a moneymaker (again true) I'd much rather it be this than junk like the latest Twilight or Transformers sequel. I can at least comprehend what the appeal is here.

The last time ten films were nominated for Best Picture was 1943, which is important to note since the most under-reported and bizarre detail about The Blind Side is how it wouldn't seem at all out of place as a nominee in that year. It's a throwback to a classic era when films were much simpler and the characters in them far kinder. It may be wimpy in its syrupy Hollywoodization of a social issue but it's gutsy in how sincerely honest and good-hearted it is about those intentions. To call it manipulative would be inaccurate because it's completely upfront and unapologetic about what it's trying to do and never takes itself too seriously. Labeling it a Lifetime or Hallmark movie of the week would also be inaccurate since even those usually contain some kind of dramatic conflict...or so I've heard. This doesn't.

What director John Lee Hancock accomplishes is actually an impressive feat because for over 2 hours he manages to sustain an entertaining movie that not only lacks conflict, but one where every character is happy and there are no problems in life. Laughable in theory, but difficult to execute on screen. Filming a story featuring only nice people doing the right thing and still have it be exciting isn't easy. He should be known as Norman Rockwell instead of John Hancock and entering the alternate trouble-free universe he creates requires the acceptance of a few basic principles. Everyone goes to church. No one curses. There is no crime. 9/11 never happened. People are either rich or poor. Black or white. Democrat or Republican. They either live in fancy homes or in the "bad side" of town. Life is simple. It's as if the events that occurred in the fictional 1950's sitcom setting of the film Pleasantville were played straight in an earnest drama without so much as a hint of irony. And the 'PG-13' rating this carries from the MPAA feels like a mistake since aside from a few isolated instances of very mild violence and language, this is essentially a 'G' rated picture. That's not surprising since Hancock's previous inspirational sports drama, the Disney produced The Rookie, was actually rated that.

Based on the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman, Michael Oher, the film was adapted from Michael Lewis' 2006 book, "The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game," and that sub-title is excised for a reason. Anyone approaching this movie expecting to get any kind of insight into the technical aspects of the game of football should refer to the aforementioned scene of Bullock strutting across the field and listen to the strategic advice she gives if you want a good laugh. That, an opening that will enrage Redskins fans and the appearance of several former and current NCAA coaches, is the full extent of the football's presence in the film. What this story is really about is the bond between this mother and her adopted son, and on that level it succeeds, albeit in a traditionally simplistic way we're not used to.

Newcomer Quinton Aaron plays Oher (AKA "Big Mike"), who arrives off the street at the Wingate Christian School in Tennessee illiterate and a borderline mute. It isn't until he's taken in by feisty decorator Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw who's actually very good in this) that Mike begins to discover a love for football and family and turn his life around, transforming Leigh Ann's and her family's in the process. Yep, that's all there is to it. And there's hardly an obstacle in the way of him doing it besides him. It's very strange. These are the nicest, most tolerant people on Earth. I'd say they're the kind of people you could only see in a movie but that would be wrong because we don't even see them in movies anymore.

Without hesitance Leigh Anne takes this total stranger into her home. Her husband seems completely fine with the idea. Her precocious son, S.J. (Jae Head) flat-out loves it. But most bizarrely, her 18-year-old daughter, Collins (Lily Collins) isn't some rebellious teenager getting ready to use Mike's arrival as an excuse to lash out, but an understanding girl who befriends him. Those criticizing the film for this approach may want to decide whether they want this or the manufactured bush league screenwriting conflicts and contrivances we usually have to suffer through. The husband as an abusive alcoholic? The teenage daughter doing drugs and sleeping around? A shootout in the projects? The neighbors spray painting "the 'N' word" on the side of their car? How about "the big game?" This may also mark the first time conservative Republicans in a movie have been portrayed as anything other than gun-toting racists or corrupt government officials. They're just good, hard-working people and it may come as a surprise that even in movies it is possible for people like this to exist regardless of their political affiliation. It's funny the film has come under attack for making the opposite choices every picture in this genre is routinely blasted for.

More controversial is Hancock's idea of what constitutes conflict in this story because even the moments where he comes close to depicting it are undercut by the Utopian, danger-free atmosphere the characters inhabit. Even Leigh Anne's encounter with a gang member is just one huge set-up for a punch line that emphasizes the character's sassiness. Of course, we know if a woman dressed like that that really were to enter a neighborhood that dangerous the situation would have a far less desirable outcome, possibly threatening the film's G-rated PG-13. But why would we want to see that anyway? It's just not that kind of movie and going in that direction would have been completely inappropriate for the material.

When meeting Mike's crack addicted biological mother, the one confrontation you'd figure would be sure to set off fireworks, Hancock plays it surprisingly low-key and with little tension. Even she thinks what Leigh Ann's doing is admirable. Against all odds, the scene works anyway and somehow feels authentic in no small part due to Bullock. The only mild dissenters in the story are Leigh Ann's rich, white girlfriends who ironically question if she's harboring the same "white guilt" the film has been accused of pedaling. But entering this expecting any kind of serious examination of race relations is missing the point. This isn't trying to be Precious, a far different type of dramatic picture that beats you into submission with its harsh reality and emotionally raw performances.

This movie isn't pretending to be anymore than a feel-good fairy tale, but that doesn't make it racist or imply that black people need the help of whites to survive in society or something silly like that. To say that this has any serious agenda concerning race is giving it more credit than it deserves. The biggest stab at conflict comes late in the form of an NCAA scandal of sorts that brings the focus back to Mike calls into question the saintly family's motives as well as our own doubts that the film could possibly be as sweetly sincere as it is. Then enter Kathy Bates in a small role as Miss Sue, a tutor who shows up to help get Mike's grades up to graduation level.

As big a joke as it seems to many that this is an Oscar contender, there are three areas where you could reasonably argue it's deserving, two of which are the editing and musical score. The movie is nearly 130 minutes long and the time just flies by with everything going down as easy as children's cough medicine. That this is all just mainstream fluff is a factor in that but the film still has to be cut well and it's especially difficult to do that when there's so little happening dramatic fireworks. It's so effortless to sit through I'd actually watch it again, which is more than I can say for many depressing releases this year that were superior in quality. Carter Burwell's score perfectly matches the homey, down-to-Earth small town southern feel Hancock creates. It's the small touches like Leigh Anne calling the coach (Ray McKinnon) on her cell from the stands to scream at him during a game or Mike bench-pressing S.J. that help make the movie feel authentic without ever crossing that thin line separating it from maudlin sap.

It seems everyone's is happy for Sandra Bullock AS A PERSON, despite not being much of a fan of her work AS AN ACTRESS, and that goodwill should carry her to the Oscar whether or not the performance itself is deserving. I'll confess my appreciation of her talents peaked sometime in the mid '90's and have been in a steady decline since. The past decade or so she's really had it rough career-wise and that she'll likely be collecting a Razzie Award for Worst Actress (for All About Steve) the same year she could take home the Oscar indicates just how bad it's really been. But only over the past couple of months has it become painfully obvious just how much audiences like her and how badly they've wanted her to come back, grasping at every last straw to make that happen, even as her critics continue slamming her every step. She's someone viewers like spending two hours with even if they don't always agree with her choices.

What's most interesting about this role for her is just how much it resembles all the terrible parts she's played over the years and how it should have tanked like the rest of them. But this was the one questionable choice that somehow hit, and as shocking as it is to admit, that's largely because she does some of her best work. She's still dealing with problematic material but this is the first time she rises above it and shows up onscreen with more motivation and energy than we've seen in years. This isn't a deep or complex role, and the character she's playing is essentially a saint with just a tiny bit of an edge, but it cleverly plays to all of her strengths as a performer. Had the script been more dramatic I'm not too sure she'd be capable enough to go darker so it comes as a relief that she doesn't need to. There's just enough wiggle room that there's some of her own star personality mixed in there with this real-life woman and the combination proves to be really enjoyable, carrying the movie.

The comparison to Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich a decade ago is right on the money in that both roles push the actress' looks and personalities to the forefront as part of the character rather than obscuring them like we're so used to seeing in these types of roles. Ironically, Roberts passed on the part before Bullock snatched it up and I'm not sure she could have done as well with it. In a stronger year you may have been be able to argue this performance isn't worthy of consideration, but still not having seen all the nominees, her inclusion, and even potential win, is far from the travesty it's been made out to be. To Sandra's credit, she at least comes off as someone who enjoys this and wants to do good work, but unfortunately hit a series of speed bumps along the way. I'd rather have someone like this be rewarded than, say, Eddie Murphy, who just enjoys cashing checks. While it's a great performance, she lucked out here and likely knows it. I hope moving forward she uses this success as a springboard to make more creatively fulfilling choices.

For a change, this film's nomination is actually important, not necessarily because it could represent the public's lowering standards over the past year (true to an extent), but because it really opens the floodgates in terms of what pictures and performances could potentially qualify as "Oscar worthy." You have to wonder if this policy of ten nominees were instituted a few years earlier whether similarly themed sports dramas like Remember the Titans or Miracle would have slipped in for Best Picture. Would Matthew McConaughey be preparing his acceptance speech for We Are Marshall? Unlikely (I hope), but you get the point. It's official: Now ANYONE or ANYTHING can win an Oscar. Let that scary thought sink in.

There's a lesson in what's happened with The Blind Side that might be more interesting than anything in the actual movie. Many critics (myself included) can get so caught up in analyzing the ins and outs of film that they sometimes lose touch with reality. That reality being that with the state the country's in right now audiences just aren't interested in seeing the same wrist-slitting movies that they are. Most just want to be entertained. They may not want to see obese, HIV positive teenagers physically and emotionally abused by their mothers, people getting fired, jumping off bridges, being dumped by their girlfriends or anything having to do with the Iraq war. And can you really blame them? When even a Pixar film features a traumatic death in the opening minutes and the most upbeat cinematic experience of the year is a Holocaust movie, it's no wonder audiences are burnt out and need to come up for air.

I can't exactly shower praise on the film with a straight face because it's just so goofy, but at least the intentions are sincere and it doesn't have the same inflated sense of self-importance as other award comntending films this year. Is it an atrocity that this was nominated in a strong year when clearly more deserving titles were passed over ? Of course, but at least it's a fun atrocity. A film with characters named "Miss Sue" and "Coach Cotton" doesn't exactly beg to be taken seriously as social commentary so it shouldn't be. Full of down home charm, The Blind Side is mindless, feel-good entertainment released at a time of year when sending viewers home happy is considered a criminal offense.

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