Michael Lewis' book The Blind Side tells the true story of Michael Oher, a poor black kid who gets adopted by a rich white family and transforms himself into a football star. The movie version zooms in on Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the woman who gave the hard-up prodigy the care and feeding that he needed to become a man and an NFL draft pick. This feels less like an artistic choice than an economic one. The Blind Side plays like filmmaking by focus group, a movie that aims to please and ends up condescending to its audience.
By definition, an inspirational sports movie tells a story that's almost too good to be true. Michael Oher's escape from homelessness and illiteracy certainly hits that mark. "Big Mike" (played by Quinton Aaron) shuffles around Memphis, Tenn., with his head down, looking sad and saying not much at all. Once he moves in with the Tuohys, the humongous cipher slowly opens up—he prefers to go by "Michael," he confesses—thanks to the love of the first real family he's ever known. At the same time, the 345-pound behemoth taps into a heretofore unknown ability to smash and bludgeon on the football field, leaving college recruiters frothing at the mouth over his potential as a left tackle.
The problem with a story that's almost too good to be true is that someone in Hollywood will try to make it better. Writer-director John Lee Hancock, a veteran of the swelling-music-at-the-big-game genre—he helmed Disney's The Rookie (2002), the feel-good account of an old guy who becomes a major-league pitcher—compensates for the nonverbal behemoth clogging the center of his story by embroidering the edges. Oher's adopted sibling, Sean Jr. (Jae Head), becomes a Lipnicki-esque scamp who—when he's not making an adorably sassy remark—puts his big bro through the paces on the football field. Oher's high-school coach, Hugh Freeze, who in Lewis' book comes off as a gridiron savant, is depicted as a whistle-blowing boob, a foil for Leigh Anne Tuohy's more emotionally attuned pedagogy: "This team is your family, Michael."
A movie based on real events should be allowed some creative license. It's no high crime, for example, that the filmmakers skip over the fact that Oher became eligible to play college ball by padding his GPA with correspondence-course credits. The cheap grabs for emotional resonance in The Blind Side's screenplay gall far more than the film's elision of minor details. In real life, Oher pushed a trash-talking defensive lineman so far off the field of play that he was penalized for "excessive blocking." In the movie, the bile-spewing opponent comes with a racist, heckling dad, the better to give Bullock's Leigh Anne an opportunity for righteous indignation.
There's talk of Bullock finagling an Oscar nomination for her role here, and for good reason—The Blind Side appears to have been engineered with precisely that goal in mind. The rom-com queen does indeed stand out as a willful, compassionate mother hen, but she doesn't come across as a real woman. Leigh Anne is a movie mom, and The Blind Side is essentially a series of set pieces—a parking lot showdown with lowlife hoods, a how-dare-you-judge-me confrontation with her upper-crust ladyfriends—designed to let Bullock earn her top billing.
For all The Blind Side's flaws, it's impossible not to get caught up in Michael Oher's life. (And if you're a sports fan, there's also some perverse pleasure to be had in watching the nation's leading college football coaches—Nick Saban, Lou Holtz, Phil Fulmer, and more—labor to play themselves. If you've never heard former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron speak, you owe it to yourself to hear the unintelligible Cajun say, "I hear that kid can really pepper the gumbo.") You're rooting for Oher to make something of himself, for him to succeed on the field, and for him to find happiness with his new family. But most of all, you're rooting—praying, hoping—for his story to be told in a movie that wasn't made for Sandra Bullock.
Slate V: The critics on The Blind Side and other new releases