A great swath of American men might fall in love with Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, the generously entertaining movie about, among other things, the sweeping cultural phenomenon that is football in the South. She is beautiful. She is rich. She loves football. And she carries a gun.
Like Jerry Maguire, which pleasingly combined sports movie and romantic comedy, The Blind Side seems engineered to appeal to both men and women. There is lots of football, and there are also weepy, family-melodrama elements. There are very funny moments, too, and even, as in Jerry Maguire, an adorable, just-this-side-of-irritating little boy (Jae Head) who aggressively steals his every scene.
The Blind Side is based on journalist Michael Lewis' 2006 book of the same name, which sought to answer a riddle: Why are left tackles among the NFL's highest-paid players? It's an interesting question, if an abstruse one to people who don't follow football. In the film it is mainly examined in opening footage, narrated by Bullock, of the brutal 1985 sack that ended the career of Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.
Then the film takes up Lewis' other story, about the football player Michael Oher, a first-round NFL draft pick who this fall began his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens. Michael, played with minimal fuss by Quinton Aaron, wanders into the sights of the football coach (Ray McKinnon) at Wingate, a lily-white Christian prep school in Memphis. The coach sees raw talent in this gigantic, enigmatic black kid and tries to get him into the school. The problem: Michael, who comes from shattering poverty, has abysmal test scores. He has been bounced from school to school. But Christian ethics prevail, and Michael is enrolled at Wingate, with the stipulation that he won't be playing any sports until he gets his grades up.
We see glimpses of Michael's sad life. He scavenges for discarded food at high school volleyball games. He poaches the use of a dryer at a desolate Laundromat. Then he is spotted by Leigh Anne Touhy (Bullock), a wealthy Wingate parent who, passing him on the road, wonders where he is walking on a cold night. The Wingate gym, Michael says, because it's warm there. In a funny and moving exchange, an alarmed Leigh Anne orders Michael into the SUV, and he spends the night at the Touhy McMansion.
The Touhys learn more about Michael's desperate background. He has no home. When he casually tells Leigh Anne that he has never had his own bed, director and screenwriter John Lee Hancock lets the camera linger on her face for an aching moment as she registers horror verging on nausea. She quietly leaves the room. Eventually the Touhys adopt Michael.
Meanwhile, Michael's grades are improving, thanks to the efforts of a kindly tutor. She's played, in a too brief performance, by Kathy Bates, who whispers an ominous warning to the Touhys as she takes on the project: She is a Democrat. As for his football skills, the Touhys are hopeful. Leigh Anne and husband Sean (played with appealing understatement by the country singer Tim McGraw) are avid fans of the team at the University of Mississippi, where Sean was a basketball star. They encourage Michael to consider Ole Miss.
But Michael is ineffective on the gridiron until, at practice, Leigh Anne amusingly begins phoning instructions to the coach from the sidelines. We've already seen Michael be determinedly protective of his new family. Leigh Anne tells Michael to turn that instinct to the quarterback, and triumph follows in an enthralling sequence. At a game, a lineman from the other team taunts Michael until, enraged, he lifts the opponent, carries him the length of the field and hurls him over a fence.
Footage of the play gets out, and Wingate practices begin to attract coaches from around the Southeastern Conference - actual coaches like South Carolina's Lou Holtz and Tennessee's Phil Fulmer, who appear in cameos. Success is around the corner, and only an NCAA investigation into something or other can get in the way. But we know how this story ends, and triumphant footage and photos of the real Oher and the real Touhys accompany the credits.
Bullock is a ravishing force of nature in this film, whether she is bullying football coaches and gun-wielding gangbangers, or gently comforting Michael's desolate mother in a poignant scene. Surely I am not alone in wanting to be rescued, like Michael Oher, by Sandra Bullock.
But the film also makes me uneasy. Part of the problem is Aaron's performance as Michael, which emphasizes the character's sweetness. In Lewis' writing the young Oher is darkly complex - a teenage giant whose silence is a disturbing mystery, the product of an unfathomably chaotic life. We see that life in the film, but only in caricature.
And although some nuances emerge, I'm unsettled by what The Blind Side says about race. In this telling, poor African Americans are, by and large, debased, and affluent white people are virtuous, especially when it comes to football. Virtuous, that is, except for Leigh Anne's smugly bigoted lunch friends, one of whom actually asks a good question that this big Hollywood movie lacks the courage to answer: "Is this some sort of white-guilt thing?"