Monday, February 15, 2010

Condescending "The Blind Side" Confirms the Mediocrity of Oscar

"The Blind Side" is "Precious" for polite society.  For those who avoided "Precious" because its grim reality is too uncomfortable, too depressing, "The Blind Side" tells a similar story, but it's sanitized, cleaned up, and a viewer can feel virtuous, just like the character played by Sandra Bullock.  In other words, it's a movie that may find its appeal among (to paraphrase a foul line of dialogue from the movie), people who don't know any Democrats or who would not have a black person in their home. But whereas "Precious" kept its main character rooted in her urban environment and forced us to accompany her on her hellish odyssey of survival, "The Blind Side" supplants its protagonist, the real-life pro-football player Michael Oher, into the white-bread suburban landscape of upper-middle-class Memphis, to be saved by heroic whites.  

Oher is an oversized innocent, a refugee from the inner-city and a drug-addicted mother, who has been passed from school to school and between foster homes, and winds up at a private Christian school at the urging of the school custodian who is a friend of his family.  Actor Quentin Aaron begins by playing Oher passively; I thought at first the character was dim-witted.   Bullock, as Leigh Anne Tuohy, wife of a local Taco Bell Mogul (Tim McGraw) and mother of two (Lily Collins and the jaw-droppingly annoying Jae Head), takes in this gentle giant, and goes through the predictable motions toward his eventual stardom on the football field: shopping for clothes with him, giving him his first bed, hiring him a tutor, and wheeling and dealing to get him a college football scholarship.  I have
not read the original (true) story on which this is based, but Leigh Anne's complete obliviousness to the plight of inner city youth streched my suspension of disbelief.  (And when she visited Big Mike's mother, I kept hearing Mo'Nique's ferocious growl in my head.)

Although based on a true story, the movie treats Oher like an alien---he's "ET" from a strange land dropped into a suburban surrounding: slow, tentative, dependent, and with a specific ability to protect and save his team, or his caretakers.  It's a condescending treatment, and Aaron remains fairly passive throughout.  I wondered how black audiences would sit for this film (the audience at the theater I attended was all-white, and responding loudly, joyfully).  Big Mike cannot respond to the prodding of his coach, but listens like a loyal pet to Bullock's instructions. He is yawning, bored, as Bullock's young son speaks on his behalf for a parade of college coaches (even borrowing a line from "Jerry McGuire").   When Bullock's character reads the children's book "Ferdinand the Bull" to her son and this hulking adolescent in her bed, I expected viewers to giggle in nervous embarrassment.....but viewers are respecftfully buying-in to this condescension.

Sandra Bullock is all pluck and perk and high-minded resolve.  She's Erin Brockovich by way of "Crash".  While Bullock does what she can with the character as written, she never has an opportunity to soar.  Her work here is serviceable but not extraordinary.  I cannot understand the heaps of praise for her performance; I assume it's a matter of audiences identifying (or wanting to identify) with her character's selflessness. Still, during the emotional climax, when Bullock is required to threaten her charge with castration if he impregnates a girl in college, one is at a loss to work up any feeling for the character, or the perfomance. 

Bullock has her Kate Hepburn "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" confrontation with her ignorant friends, and stands up to the thugs in her search for Michael, and shows pride as she bulldozes everyone around her; and her recklessness is meant to be applauded.  Football is held up as a virtuous institution with the power of salvation.  Family values are worn like a badge, and there are no other black faces except in the poor side of town.  Attending this movie is like the worst aspects of living in the suburbs; you soon have the uncomfortable feeling that a lot is being assumed about you, and you are powerless to protest, unless you move away (or flee the theater).

As far as Academy Award Best Picture material, I have seen movies I have liked less that have received a nomination ("Midnight Express", anyone?) or even won the award (just about all the winning films since 2005), but I have rarely seen any that have been so baldly manipulative, so lackluster and mediocre.  But it knows its audience, and how to push that audience's buttons, and the film has been rewarded with huge box office success. Sitting there, I felt as though I were the alien.

Notwithstanding my general dislike for this movie, I did find a few redeeming qualities.  Tim McGraw was a natural in his role as Bullock's husband, and held the screen without grandstanding.  Aaron, after he is given the opportunity to function as an intelligent sentient person, handles his emerging gratitude and confusing anger quite well.  I enjoyed a subplot that hinted at romantic feelings between Mike and Bullock's daughter (which I suspect was scissored out after test screenings); and Bullock herself on occasion overcomes the material in some fine quiet moments.

On the whole, though, this Hollywood-ized premise was hard to swallow; so in order to alleviate our cinematic indigestion, Mark and I immediately followed up with a second screening of "A Single Man", which hit us like a sweet and crystalline symphony of technique and intelligence.  Nothing was lost in the repeat viewing.  It redeemed our afternoon.

Earlier this year I held on to the image of a stylish photo of Meryl Streep with Colin Firth in Oscar's winner's circle, a throwback to the glamour that was the original appeal of the Oscars.  I am afraid that image has changed, and instead of glamour, we'll have a stock-car winners circle, if front-runners Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock prevail.


  1. Tom,

    The Blind Side is no better than what you'd find on Hallmark and Lifetime. No, I take it back- the stuff on Hallmark/Lifetime doesn't masquerade itself as art. It's so shameless in its' pandering, emotional manipulation and melodrama. Why was it nominated? 238 million reasons.

    The hosannas for Sandra Bullock continue to baffle me. Her performance is only good when you consider what low, low standards her acting has reached prior.

    Frankly, if I was an Oscar voter, I'd leave Best Actress blank. I don't think any of the five deserve it. It's likely due to the fact that I was underwhelmed by all those performances and the films themselves.

  2. With regards to the passivity of Michael Oher:

    As a real person has Oher come out and spoken about the way he is portrayed in the movie - either with regards to the attitude or the largely censored but alluded attraction to the Tuohy daughter?

    *By the way I'm unlikely to get a chance to see it as it opens the same weekend as Shutter Island and Hachiko here in the UK, so I guess I could be lucky on that front.

  3. "Bullock has her Kate Hepburn "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" confrontation with her ignorant friends" as much I despise the film anyone gets thrown under the bus when compared to Kate, even if Cristina Drayton is one of her weaker efforts.

    Well you know where I stand on TBS. HATE HATE HATE! Ugh.

  4. this is a well thought out review. I have not seen the movie yet, but every (i mean, every) person that I had heard from that saw it had nothing but praise. But with the way that you viewed it may open me up to seeing the film from the perspective of how it may have portrayed the african-american society (as you said, they are only viewed when showing the poor side of town), and how Oher is in a sense like ET.

    When I finally do see it I will be sure to look at it through various lenses. I do think it is the type of movie that has potential to make people feel good about themselves, though they may have not actually done something to feel good about themselves. (i.e. "Oh, that white woman took care of the young black man so well. I'm a white woman, too, we well-to-do white people are so good to those less-fortunate blacks"). If thats the type of thought it creates in someone's mind, then it is only aiding to strengthen their tendencies to discriminate based on race.

    good, and interesting review.

  5. See, on the one hand, I kind of enjoy this movie. Tim McGraw, as you point out, and Sandra Bullock are both pretty good, and I understand the feel-goodery that it strives for, and Adriana Lenox gives a wonderful cameo. But when you compare this, as people should and as you do, to Precious, it's infuriating. StinkyLulu once wrote of Viola Davis/Taraji P. Henson last year that it was irritating that one gave a performance bereft of stereotype, while the other had a role that embraced every one. The same goes for Precious/The Blind Side. Now, I'm OK with The Blind Side, but you'd think this was a year devoid of an artistic cinema to see its double noms (hello? Bright Star?).

    runs like a gay: Michael Oher apparently will not comment other than to point out that they took a lot of liberties. I read somewhere that he's upset because they *do* portray him as a kind of mumbling, stumbling idiot.

  6. I find it interesting that at a multiplex in Evanston, IL ... where we saw this film ... and where you have a relatively large community of African American citizens, there was only one screening of the film on a Sunday. That tells me that black viewers may be staying away in droves. Though I'm white, I wish I had stayed away, too. There is nothing remotely revealing or insightful about this film. It feels like 1990 ... or 1985. Having said that I thought Bullock's performance included some solid --though awfully predictable -- scenes. I think the popularity of this film is a sad commentary on lazy American thinking and viewing habits. Precious leaves The Blind Side in the dust as a compelling story of strength overcoming tragedy and social injustice.

  7. Great post, Tom! You know you are really in your element with these movie reviews, and especially with your analysis of "Blind Side" as it compares to "Precious." Very well done!

    I genuinely enjoy watching films with Sandra Bullock when she is displaying her comic chops, but with the exception of "Hope Floats" I have never been a huge fan of her dramatic endeavors. I read the story the movie was based on but I'm not inspired to go out and see the film. I'll wait until it pops up on cable.