The problem is chiefly in the story area, since it all looks decent enough - competent direction being the saving grace that ultimately keeps me from despising it as much as, say, "Transformers." It's solid formula from beginning to end - if you can't predict where every moment of the film is going from its trailer, you haven't seen enough movies. Yes, fine, it's based on a true story, but that seldom (and oughtn't) stops a film from keeping things interesting. A rich, white, magazine-perfect nuclear family adopts a poor, black orphan of intimidating size and strength literally off the street, everyone learns from everyone else. The movie you're picturing is the movie you get, sappy, moronic dialogue and all:

MICHAEL: "I never had one before."
MRS. TUOHY: "What, a room to yourself?"
MICHAEL: "...A bed."

Not a parody, folks. That's actual dialogue spoken by actors in a theatrical film in 2009.

Setting aside, for a moment, the pandering reassurance of this kind of "thank heaven for white people" fairytale, why is Oher, clearly the character making the most interesting journey, the secondary co-star in his own story? The film reduces him to a cipher, seldom speaking and existing only to generate moments of enlightenment in the other characters - particularly Bullock's Mrs. Tuohy. In fact, the film is always about her, even when it's about Oher: he escapes the dead-end of the ghetto, but the film doesn't care what he thinks about that. Instead, it's all about how much her eyes have been opened to the plight of the underclass. Surely he must have some thoughts on the curious chatter he draws from the Tuohy's friends and relatives, but the movie is only interested in Mrs. Tuohy's courage in telling off her less racially-conscious ladyfriends.

FRIEND: "You're changin' that boy's life."
MRS. TUOHY: "No... he's changing MINE."

Are you kidding me? Someone let that wind up on screen?

Making Mrs. Tuohy the main character might've worked, of course, except that the film refuses to go beneath the surface of any of its characters for fear they might be less easily understood. Oher is a passive, one-dimensional sounding board, while his saintly rescuer is characterized as thinly and transparent as the stained glass she may as well be carved out of. And it does, of course, rate a mention that the film is telling mainstream Hollywood's favorite parable of race-relations harmony: The Black Man as super-strong near-simpleton, helpless and potentially dangerous until shown proper direction by Rich White People.

The film also has moments of genuinely baffling artistic decisions, such as a bizarre sequence where Oher tears apart a gang of gun-toting ghetto crack dealers with his bare hands, or Bullock busting out an Erin Brokovich impression to put those same dealers in their place a scene later. And, of course, it pulls the cheap screenwriter's trick of deflating obvious criticism by placing it in the mouths of "bad" characters: "Is this some kind of white guilt thing?" coyly asks one of Leigh Anne's bitchy friends, (take THAT meanie critics pointing out that it's just another "thank heaven for white folks" pander-fest) while the real story's sole note of controversy - the Tuohys were financially connected to the college Oher eventually signed with - is here raised only by a "mean" investigator whose interrogation makes Michael sad.

In other words, this is the sort of film for which people were glad the old fixture of producer-driven filmmaking went away: Films more concerned with hitting demographics, offering safe ego-stroking and reducing any story to easily-digestible pablum. Films that are less art than they are product, overhand-pitched to the most easily-satisfied audiences and stocked with singularly unengaging talents like... well, Sandra Bullock.

In that respect, I could almost recommend going to see this, if for no other reason than to get a crash-course in everything that's empty, stale and defeating about the filmmaking machine.


Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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