Can mainstream audiences swallow a sports film tackling issues of race, poverty and social injustice? Writer-director John Lee Hancock doesn’t think so, as evidenced by his warm, fuzzy retelling of the life of Michael Oher, the black Baltimore Ravens rookie who was raised by a white Southern family.

Michael Oher ... this is your life. Well, your sanitized life retold safely because the real version would go down like nails.


Can mainstream audiences swallow a sports film tackling issues of race, poverty and social injustice? Writer-director John Lee Hancock doesn’t think so, as evidenced by “The Blind Side,” his warm, fuzzy retelling of the life of Oher, the black Baltimore Ravens rookie who was raised by a white Southern family.


Based on Michael Lewis’ 2006 book of the same name, the movie removes all the rough edges and replaces them with factory-fresh uplift. It certainly makes for a genuine crowd-pleaser, but it’s one that’s hollow at its core, largely because Hancock (“The Rookie”) is reticent to confront the underlying issues of race, sport and society’s neglect of children of color.


For the uninitiated, Oher – one of 13 kids from a drug-addicted mother – was a destitute teenager who went from scrounging for food on the streets of Memphis to calling a wealthy white evangelical couple Mom and Dad. It’s so compelling that if it weren’t true you’d think it was pure hokum.


Sandra Bullock, refreshingly going against type, plays the forceful and outspoken Leigh Anne Tuohy, the Memphis belle who takes Oher under her wing. One minute he’s walking with his head down in a cold rain; and the next he’s eating Thanksgiving dinner with her wealthy family.


Turns out her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) owns every Taco Bell (holy Chihuahua!) in Memphis and they’ve got two perfect kids – teen daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and younger brother S.J.


Once the ginormous 6-4, 310-pound black teenager moves in to their McMansion, all hopes of serious drama end, as Hancock goes straight for the fish-out-of-water comedy and never lets up. At one point he even stoops to having a drunken uncle call up to ask if the Tuohys are aware there’s a black kid in their family Christmas card photo.


Toning down her usual shrill and going blond for a change, Bullock gives a smart and bold performance, doing justice to a woman in Leigh Anne who doesn’t take no for an answer. Bullock plays her with gusto. And her emotional scenes opposite Quinton Aaron as Oher are touching and believable.


The heavy lifting, though, falls upon the heavyweight Aaron, who does wonders in fleshing out Oher and his hermetically sealed emotions.


It’s a role that relies on gesture, facial expressions and body language instead of dialogue. It’s probably the reason why Hancock couldn’t use more of Aaron – Oher didn’t talk much in real life. It was a survival skill.


As good as Bullock is, her role is also the problem, as it overshadows everyone else.


That includes Sean, who isn’t given much to do except park the car. Jae Head as the Tuohy’s son, S.J., is up to the same scene-stealing cutie-pie stuff he displayed last summer in “Hancock,” except here it’s a distraction.


Most of Oher’s past is relayed through the same painful flashback of a young, tearful boy being ripped from a filthy apartment by a police officer. Whenever Michael thinks of his past, the clip plays – over and over. Yawn.


Rather than delve into Oher’s psyche, Hancock opts to plug other Warner Bros. films, like showing the kids reading “Where the Wild Things Are.”


A big fan of Lewis’ book, I went into this film with high expectations that were, sadly, not met. The nuts-and-bolts football stuff is glossed over. There’s some explanation about the significance of the left tackle position (to protect the quarterback’s blind side), but its importance isn’t clearly relayed, despite the opening scenes with the infamous Lawrence Taylor/Joe Theismann footage.


If you don’t know much about football, forget about trying to understand what he’s doing on the field. The time allotted for that probably would have meant doing away with Hancock’s parade of college-coach cameos featuring the likes of Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Houston Nutt.


Hancock’s most egregious crime isn’t trying to make the film funny with lines from the book like: “Who knew we’d have a black son before we knew a Democrat?” His biggest mistake is taking too light a touch to a story that on its own merit is as gritty and edgy as they come.


THE BLIND SIDE PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references. Cast includes Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron. Directed by John Lee Hancock. 2 stars.


 



 



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