It’s said that there’s a special kind of evil genius at work within Hollywood film producers – the men who decide what gets to be a movie and how. In the “Golden Age” of filmmaking, they were often framed as the real chief creative (in the literal sense, as they controlled both the money and material – the sperm-and-egg of film production) force behind a given film: You see this reflected in the films about filmmaking of the time, the archetype of the silver-haired curmudgeon legendary for matching the “right” star with the “right” material and director… then instructing them in how to do their jobs. “It’s a great story, but it ain’t got heart! The people wanna see heart! Maybe the guy needs a kid… NO! A girlfriend! Childhood sweetheart, people love that! And they can adopt a kid… NO! A dog! Big dog, like a shepherd or somethin’! Yeah, shepherd. Shepherd says rural. Heartland. Mom, apple flags and American pie!”
That model more or less went out in the 70s. The studio system was collapsing under its own weight; saddled with now-unwanted films aimed at an older, traditional audience that was staying home to watch TV and a younger audience they had no real idea how to reach. The rescue came almost at the last minute, in the form of The Movie Brats: The first generation of directors who’d graduated from film school and (perhaps more importantly) had done so marinating in “Auteur Theory” – a style of film-philosophy that held the director (as opposed to the producer or writer) was the ultimate author of the film. You know the names of these men: Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola. They showed the industry the way, and in turn changed the dynamic from then on. Now directors were the visionary gods of creativity, and the producer was the bitter money-guarding ogre who had to be outfoxed or even slain for anything good to be filmed.
But there are times when, watching certain films unfold, I get the sense that the evil genius producer isn’t wholly a relic of the past. They must still exist, and sometimes must even get a picture made like in the old days. This is such a time, since “evil genius” (especially the “evil” part) is the only description I can offer of the mindset that looked at Michael Lewis book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” – a book tracing the seismic shift in American Professional Football strategy and position-hierarchy following the arrival of Lawrence Taylor in the early 1980s in tandem with the life story of NFL pro Michael Oher – and declared, “This will be a great star-vehicle for Sandra Bullock!!”
And yet here we are. The movie version of “The Blind Side” is indeed a family-friendly feel-good drama that largely pays lip service to the sports-history aspect of Lewis’ book and instead focuses on Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the wealthy Memphis, Tennessee matriarch who adopted the all-but-homeless Oher as a teen and helped nurture him into a star athlete. It’s everything the evil genius super-producers of old – and the evil milquetoast producers of now – could want in their product: It’s safe, it’s happy, it appeals to women (“tuff-luv mama saves the day!”) but also men (“FOOTBAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!”). It’s rated PG-13 so kids and teens can see it with their own money and it has a “socially-responsible” message about tolerance – Oher is poor and black, his rescuers are rich and white, they enrich one-another – that makes people feel enlightened without actually having the undergo any real change or introspection. And, as a reward for these virtues, it’s of course a big hit – the most popular film in America not featuring dreamy, glitter-skinned vampire man-candy.
It’s also a creaking, colossal piece of shit.
Some whiskers just perked up. I can hear them, shortly followed by the muffled sound of knickers getting in a twist, danders getting up, and whatever other cliché you’d like the toss in there. It’s the noise that accompanies any criticism of a film like this from someone from the movie geek side of the moviegoing world. “Hmph! Well, of course he didn’t like it! There’s no superheroes fighting cyborg dinosaurs!” I can’t do anything to change that perception, save to maybe point out that I’m not immune to sentimentality (I liked “The Notebook” well enough) or inspirational sports dramas (loved “Remember the Titans”) when the films are well made. “The Blind Side” isn’t just poorly made, it’s bad enough so as to be intellectually offensive.
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.