Monday, February 15, 2010
Condescending "The Blind Side" Confirms the Mediocrity of Oscar
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.