Friday, January 15, 2010

MORE SANDRA BULLOCK ON THE "SIDE," PLEASE!

The Blind Side is not a good movie, but I couldn't peel my eyes away from it.

To call it a train wreck, though, would be completely beside the point.

The movie is highly watchable, a must-see perhaps, for one reason only: Sandra Bullock. It's not exactly about her "performance," because what you are basically watching when you watch The Blind Side is Sandra expertly playing another variation on her theme: the perky, smart-aleck, no-nonsense broad she's been inhabiting movie in and movie out since Speed.

It's nice to see actors like Sandra and George Clooney getting raves for low-key performances that don't seem to have been conceived with "For your consideration" ads in mind. There's no over-emoting, no heavy lifting, no money Oscar-clip scene -- just a nicely aging star not playing against type and being all the more effective for it.

My friend Mara calls Sandra's character, Leigh Anne Tuohy -- an upper-middle-class Republican who takes in Big Mike (Quinton Aaron), a large black stray -- "a Kathy Lee Gifford-type Steel Magnolia," and she's totally right.

But Sandra, in "blonde" Erin Brockovich mode, plays the hell out of her. If the movie, which is improbably based on a true story (and just in case you have your doubts, the real-life players are shown during the closing credits), weren't so manipulative, so simplistic in its portrait of black vs. white, rich vs. poor, big vs. small, she'd be a lock for the best actress oscar she's almost certain to be nominated for.
But Hollywood doesn't really know how to do sports movies. They strive too hard for (false) uplift, and make no mistake, I completely fell for The Blind Side's hook, line and sinker.

Still, I've seen more realism and better acting on Friday Night Lights, a great, underappreciated TV series that I kept thinking of while watching the movie. Both are set in southern Bible-belting towns with football at the center. And both feature actress Kim Dickens in a supporting role. In Lights, Kim is a plain-Jane mom who ran out on her family just when it needed her most. In Side, she's the most beautiful Christian private school teacher ever to open a textbook. We see her well before we see Sandra Bullock, and as she warms to Big Mike, it becomes crystal clear where the movie is going: Heartstrings will be pulled.

There are a couple of interesting throwaway bits in the movie. The film makes it clear that the Touhys are card-carrying Republicans without anyone ever explicitly stating it, but nothing about their actions nor their attitudes backs it up -- and neither does the casting. (I don't know Sandra's politics, although I suspect her to be a staunch liberal, but Tim McGraw, who has a nice, comforting screen presence as Liegh Anne's supportive husband, once told me that he is a Democrat to the core.)

And there are also two scenes in Big Mike's former neighborhood which settle momentarily on a particular character/actor for no particular reason. In the second one, he's shown crying because of events that have just transpired, but it's never explained why. We find out, through a voiceover at the end of the movie and a shot of a newspaper clipping, that he ends up getting killed on his 21st birthday. I don't know who the actor is, but Sandra Bullock's aside, his face is the one thing that stayed with me after the closing credits.

Ultimately, The Blind Side takes an easy road out. It might have been a better, more realistic movie if there had been more conflict. Even the bigotry is mostly off screen! There are a few forks in the road -- a run-in on the bad side of the tracks, a pivotal football match, a big bad (but well-played) dragon lady working for the NCAA -- but there's never any doubt that love (and Sandra's Leigh Anne) will ultimately save the day.
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