By horse-collaring all subtlety in The Blind Side, writer-director John Lee Hancock penalizes the compelling story of Michael Oher and the ascendance of the offensive tackle in the NFL hierarchy.
Hancock has played up all the Lifetime-movie aspects, and little of the apparent self-reliance or position-player interest, of Oher’s story. It’s a far cry from the nuanced, specific characterization Hancock brought to his true-to-life baseball film The Rookie and a disappointing detraction from a prologue that would seem to set a theme for how fate would forge Oher’s football future.
Born to a crack-addicted mother in Memphis and socially promoted through the school system, Oher got a shot at a future thanks to a Christian school, an inclination toward football and the kindness of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy — wealthy benefactors who eventually became Oher’s foster parents.
Not only does Oher feel like a secondary character in a film about him — as Oher, Quinton Aaron plays second fiddle to Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Anne — but it’s also presumably an inaccurate portrayal. Now an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, Oher has argued the film’s depiction of his initial gridiron ineptitude.
But without that, Bullock couldn’t brassily stroll up to give Oher a magical analogy for protecting the quarterback as he would his family. There couldn’t be lackadaisical comedy scenes of Oher distracting defenders rather than decimating them. And there sure couldn’t be awwwwww-inducing montages of the Tuohy’s young son S.J. (Jae Head) helping him train.
Everything about The Blind Side feels too calculated, too safe, too invulnerable and too cute — a series of cameos from Lou Holtz, Nick Saban and other college coaches feels like a bad ESPN ad in which Lee Corso will jump out at any moment.
Also, its message seems woefully misplaced. Yes, Oher went on to the University of Mississippi, where he excelled in football. But you won’t learn from The Blind Side that he majored in criminal justice, let alone why. Also, the Tuohys’ seemingly bright teenaged daughter, Collins, is listed as having “followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a cheerleader at Ole Miss.” Studying for what, an MRS degree? The Blind Side is particularly aggressive about the importance of education without showing how it lights much of a spark within any of its teenagers.
And there were undoubtedly real-life obstacles in Oher’s way, but do they have to be so piggishly demonized onscreen to the point where Snidely Whiplash would chide them for going too far? Teachers relaxing in their luxurious lounge twirl not mustaches, but pencils. A gaggle of disapproving housewives with whom Leigh Anne lunches boasts the most garish makeup this side of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Of course, the inappropriately cocky defender taunting Oher on the field is the son of the racist yokel in the stands whom Leigh Anne must also dress down.
Worst of all, The Blind Side suffers from I Am Sam syndrome — in which it asks us to laugh at the mental shortcomings of a kindly character one moment, then scold people’s dismissal of his capabilities in the next.
It culminates in an embarrassingly offensive scene in which Kathy Bates — as Oher’s tutor — seems to convince Oher there are bodies buried beneath a rival university’s football field. Moments later, he’s unexpectedly, and eloquently, equating The Charge of the Light Brigade to the trust one would put in a gridiron playmaker. Aaron does what he can, directed to be as beatific as possible at all times.
The only bright spot in The Blind Side is Bullock’s performance — her finest dramatic role yet even if it still feels limited by the obnoxious crowd-pleasing tone. Her humor comes from playing up the verbal brassiness of Erin Brockovich, and it’s undercut with her genuine concern for Oher, as well as whether the Tuohys’ actions actually have been altruistic or duplicitous (in an NCAA-investigation subplot that Hancock introduces far too late for anything substantial).
It’s a good tipoff that The Blind Side is subliminally attempting to make viewers think of better football entertainment right from the first shot — a football player with the last name “Riggins” on his jersey. Whether film or TV, the Friday Night Lights worldview is more insightful, inclusive and, even in its limited focus on football, exciting in that regard than anything about The Blind Side.