With Bullock on the team, the conventional "Blind Side" is a winner
The new film "The Blind Side" opens with that now-famous 1985 scene of New York Giants lineman Lawrence Taylor shattering Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg and his NFL career. Much like that scene itself you’ve seen everything in the winning “The Blind Side” before: player rising above challenging circumstances to become a star with help from those around them. But unlike other sports films, the differences with "The Blind Side" reside in two words: Sandra Bullock. The engaging Bullock commands every scene she's in, and she's the primary reason to see the crowd-pleasing but otherwise conventional sports film.
"The Blind Side" tells the inspirational story of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Michael Oher (newcomer Quinton Aaron), who grew up poor and mostly homeless in the projects of Memphis. Through the help of an acquaintance, he gets into a private Christian school where the children of the wealthy Sean (country singer Tim MacGraw) and Leigh Anne Touhy (Bullock) attend.
When the Tuohy's learn of his difficult circumstances, they take him in, giving him food, clothing and a place to stay, eventually becoming his guardians. They help him shore up his athletic abilities to get him on the football team and hire a tutor named Miss Sue (Kathy Bates) to help him get his grades up in order to stay on the team. Michael becomes a star player in the process, highly recruited by many big universities, though his rocky past threatens to hinder a bright future.
"The Blind Side" is an entertaining, heart-warming but clichéd sports movie that is prime example of what an actor can mean to a movie, for without Bullock, this would easily drift off into its own sappiness and old-fashioned ideas. More so, it's a sports movie that's not really about sports and it wears its message of people overcoming obstacles to achieve their true potential loud and clear, and Oher certainly had big problems: essentially no family, no home or even clean clothes. The fact you’ve seen all this before is only helped by the flashy addition of Bullock, who struts in, pours on the Southern charm and gives it some emotional connection.
The camera is clearly in love with her in “The Blind Side,” wearing a blonde wig and dressed sharply as the wealthy, feisty and opinionated Southern Belle with a heart of gold who also packs heat in her purse. The role isn't really a stretch for Bullock - she's played many strong women before - and notions of Oscar talk would be even more of a stretch (but we can forgive her for the dreadful “All About Steve”). That's not to say she isn't good, she ably carries the movie on her shoulders, which is saying a lot given Oscar-winner Bates’ huge presence as Oher’s tutor. "I have something to tell you," she breathlessly says upon meeting Leigh Anne, "I'm a Democrat."
Director John Lee Hancock, who helmed the similarly-themed sports film "The Rookie,” is wise enough to let Bullock do what she does best and handles the sports theme serviceably, managing the football scenes with enough energy and humor to appeal even to the non-sports fan. However, Hancock's script falls prey to the usual rags-to-riches clichés and dramatic liberties with the timeline, particularly having Oher become an overnight sensation with a host of college coaches knocking at his door (played by a gallery of actual college coaches as themselves - including Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Phil Fulmer - a humorous gimmick to attract sports fans) when in fact all this took a little time to unfold.
Newcomer Aaron gives a low-key, sensitive performance that represents Oher well; MacGraw is decent though the script considerably undervalues Mr. Tuohy’s role in this, while Bates makes even the smallest of roles fun. The ending is remarkably and emotionally even-keeled, though you'll still need a few tissues, particularly in that final embrace between Mrs. Tuohy and Oher, and stay over for the credits to see all the real-life folks in video and snapshots.
Hancock could've trimmed "The Blind Side" as it goes on a shade too long, and while this clearly isn't a movie about racism, it doesn't fully explore the racial implications of a story that plays like a deep South version of "Diff'rent Strokes" that is too good to be true, except that it is true. But after you’re entertained and suitably inspired by Oher's story and the lovely Bullock, that may not mean as much.