By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Every so often it is pleasant to see just a nice movie. One preferably with a beginning, middle and an end. You know, smart but not challenging, and based on a true tale, if you will. Oh, and put in a likeable lead, too. If that sounds good, “The Blind Side” is offering a welcome respite from the Cineplex’s madding crowd of special effects.
Based on Michael Lewis’s book, “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” director John Lee Hancock’s adaptation purveys the contemporary Horatio Alger saga with notable aplomb. To his credit, though much of the factual account is widely known, we’re often still not sure just how things are going to turn out for the protagonist
Act #1, Scene #1, an African-American auto mechanic beseeches the football coach at a posh Knoxville high school to enroll his son. And while he’s at it, please also accept the giant of a waif who’s been sleeping on his couch. Coach peers outside. A moving mountain blocks the sunlight as it effortlessly makes jump shots and dunks at will.
That’s Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), age uncertain. One of a dozen kids born to a drug-addicted prostitute who has drifted from slum to slum, he essentially has raised himself. Yet even after the school accepts the lad, he remains forlorn. That is, until one night whilst walking in the rain, when grand dame Leigh Anne Touhy discovers him.
Portrayed by Sandra Bullock in fine, “Steel Magnolias” (1989) fashion, Leigh Anne is a whirlwind of determination. And, as alluded to in a tête-à-tête over mint juleps with her clique of Knoxville belles, she is never short of a cause to champion. But this is her biggest yet, pun fully intended.
While there’s nothing new about rich folks taking in an unfortunate urchin, “The Blind Side” weaves a subtle subtext of tolerance into its story, primarily emoted via Miss Bullock’s take-charge portrayal. It’s not just that she takes pity on Michael. But rather, how she does it: by her look, her body language, and her very being.
In the parlance of the film, which follows Michael’s development both as a person and a football player, Bullock spots an opening and goes for it. Without her determined, single-minded heroine, the film would be adrift. And though it will have to be a weak field for her to get an Oscar nod, this is her shot.
Here, surmounting the stereotype, Miss Congeniality is now Miss Noblesse Oblige, the wealthy wife of a nice, self-made guy (Tim McGraw) who owns 93 Taco Bells. As such, Leigh Anne’s kindness is not a dalliance or a goodwill campaign, but a sincere fulfilling of her class, literally and figuratively. Bullock puts it across without a hint of sanctimony.
She makes an entertaining firebrand. When the ladies who lunch question the safety of allowing a big African-American boy to live under the same roof as her two natural children, an offended Leigh Anne announces that she can find an overpriced salad a lot closer to home. We like her style. Too bad she has no complement.
Although Quinton Aaron generally manages to express Michael’s heartrending sociology, curiosities attend the portrayal. Granted, the larger than life aspect is successful. But it’s hardly a speaking part. Save for a touching essay he writes—read to us by a teacher—Michael’s thoughts are delivered in terse, albeit pungent, sound bites.
We wonder if it’s merely the screenwriter’s interpretation or young Oher’s brutal upbringing that has rendered him so reticent. If the latter, it begs an elucidatory note or two. Slightly more talkative but less informing is Tim McGraw as Leigh Anne’s ever-supportive spouse. That he seems to be along just to supply the cash is a tad discomfiting.
Equally dissatisfying is Jae Head as S.J, the Tuohys’ chatty and diminutive biological son. Taking Big Mike under wing, little bro’s pontificating and smarty pants problem solving when adult solutions fail seem more Hollywood than Knoxville. It’s a tough role, but one that Ricky Schroder might have handled with panache instead of precociousness.
Back in the gratifying column is a rather astute primer on football itself. Attributing major changes in modern gridiron strategy to N.Y. Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Leigh Anne explains how it carved a niche for Michael. She notes that he scored in the 98th percentile when it came to protective instincts.
Thus it is theorized that a ghetto survival sense can be translated into shielding a quarterback from his charging foes. Doubtless, it’s not that simple. But such poetic license adds dramatic frills to a film otherwise faithful to the source material. While not quite a touchdown, “The Blind Side” does gain favorable yardage for its social insight.
“The Blind Side,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by John Lee Hancock and stars Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron and Tim McGraw. Running time: 128 minutes
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