A common error when adapting a popular book into a movie is trying to squeeze everything in. “The Blind Side” has the opposite problem. It's so pared down, all it offers is the most general impression of its subject, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a homeless kid from the projects taken in by a well-to-do suburban family that helps him fulfill his potential as an athlete. To compound matters, the decision was made to tell the story not from Michael's point of view or even the informational perspective of the book — by “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis — but from the vantage of the wealthy people who opened their home. This might please those looking for a sentimental take on American class and race relations, but it's a missed opportunity to examine much in the book beyond a few feel-good notions about generosity, and it creates some major problems with the movie's veracity.
“The Blind Side” book tells Oher's story, too — he's currently an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens — but also the story of why he's such a football phenomenon, and why the position he plays is so important. Filling his tale with quotes by gridiron greats like Bill Parcells, Lewis informs us with many interesting anecdotes and digressions on the way to explaining how Oher's position on the offensive line, protecting the quarterback's blind side, evolved into one of the most important in the game — sometime around the arrival of New York Giants' star linebacker Lawrence Taylor in the 1980s, specifically his career-ending sack of Washington Redskins' quarterback Joe Theismann. Oher, we learn, was perfectly built to become, with the right guidance, a star in a position now most highly valued by many NFL teams.
“The Blind Side” movie leaves esoteric stuff like that on the periphery in favor of the human drama. But doing so has reduced the book down to a conventional star vehicle for Sandra Bullock, who plays feisty Southern matron Leigh Anne Tuohy, the woman who invites Big Mike to live with her charming family: husband Sean (Tim McGraw), daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and son S.J. (Jae Head). The family takes Michael in after finding him homeless one night. The Tuohys know he goes to their children's Christian academy, but otherwise find him a hulking mystery. Leigh Anne is determined to help anyway.
Big Mike is left opaque as we go through the familiar motions of a sappy melodrama. Aaron has been praised for the performance, but it barely alternates between forlorn and happy. We don't learn a whole lot about Oher except what anyone could guess, that he feels uncomfortable in his new surroundings and misses his fractured family.
Writer and director John Lee Hancock (“The Alamo”), is intent on making Leigh Anne come across as a can-do, take-no-prisoners lioness. He overplays his hand, however — and along with Bullock's strident performance — the two turn Leigh Anne into a woman walking too tall for someone whose life is a series of movie obstacle clichAcs. With equal bravado, Leigh Anne faces down gang bangers from Michael's hood and the snooty luncheon girls from her own. She tells a boisterous “redneck” in the stands at one of Michael's football games to “zip it” after he, somewhat unbelievably for a football fan, makes fun of Big Mike's size.
Leigh Anne is somehow always in the right place at the wrong time, either finding Michael in the middle of the night homeless or showing up at his first football practice just at the moment coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon) is having problems teaching Michael the basics of his position. Of course Leigh Anne marches in to help and, of course, Michael is right as rain minutes later.
The movie dispenses with Michael's transformation into a star football player in the same breezy manner — little S.J. coaches Big Mike in a day-long workout montage — and there's very little in the way of real danger or sorrow when it deals with Michael's background of poverty. The story of Michael Oher and the Tuohys offers inspiration no matter how it's told, but there isn't anything here you haven't seen before. Lewis' book tries to tell us something new, about football and people. It's one thing to pick and choose from good source material. It's another to water it down so much it sprouts daisies. (PG-13) 126 min. HHIII