Film | Sunday, 04 April 2010

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Putting (blind) faith in the Academy

In the afterglow of the Oscars, the films that made the cut, and even those that bagged a few gongs in their own right, appear slightly garish in our multiplexes. Seeing the posters of ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ emblazoned over the cinema walls may still be okay: they are action blockbusters in their own right, and can function freely of any desire to please the polished, deflated middle-ground the Oscars so scrupulously reward each year. But ‘The Blind Side’, trailing along after its star, Sandra Bullock, secured a Best Actress award, now appears out of place. It’s clear that this sports drama – packing an Erin Brockovich-y true story and padded with so much good intentions it practically suffocates the audience – was intended to worm its way into our hearts, as well as the shallowest of our ethical codes and political conundrums. And so assured is director John Lee Hancock in this formula that he just lets the story roll on for a good two hours, barely remembering to throw in some conflict and drama. And why would he? As its Best Picture nomination (not to mention Bullock’s triumph) shows us, he’s the one basking in glory, while we waste two hours of our life.
Taken in by the well-to-do Sean (country singer Tim McGraw) and Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), and offered a second chance at life, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a homeless teen, has to face an uphill struggle: realising his dream of playing American football professionally while getting to grips with the educational system from scratch. When Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon) realises his potential, he drafts him into the school team. He is however exasperated by Michael’s refusal to beat anybody down, despite his towering bulk and undeniable strength. As he struggles to fit into his new environment, his past slowly moves in to catch up with him.
Everything about ‘The Blind Side’ is perfectly serviceable. From its feisty female heroine, the overriding theme of breaking down class and racial boundaries, down to its sheared-for-tolerable-consumption conservatism. You will root for ‘Big Mike’ and Leigh Anne, of course you will. How do race and female empowerment manage in the America’s Christian core? Quite well, if the film is anything to go by. Sure, Mike has had a tough childhood. But we only get this information through secondary characters, and some very brief flashbacks which do not even begin to intrude on the overall feel-good factor of the story. Keeping it all upbeat and smooth-sailing is the safe, heart-warming option… but it’s also the boring one, and for every amusing incident Michael and his younger pseudo-foster brother S.J. (Jae Head) get into, for every inspirational line and for every flash of redemptive ‘girl power’ whoopass from Leigh Anne, there are stretches of not much happening except for the perfectly predictable.
And what about the Oscar-winning performance? Does it elevate the otherwise humdrum rags-to-riches biopic? Well, not really. Bullock spares us any histrionics and showiness, and Leigh Anne is a believable trooper to rally under. But just like every other aspect of the film, in the end she simply blends in. The more impressive performance actually belongs to Aaron (a part-time security guard before he landed the role): he is subdued enough to suggest complexity, while never disturbing the genteel veneer that is so important to this piece of Oscar entertainment.

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