A couple weeks ago, my wife and I saw the “Blind Side,” the football biopic starring Sandra Bullock. The film has a couple of things going for it. It’s based on a true story and, while this in and of itself doesn’t make a movie or book interesting, the events are so improbable that they force you to stay engaged. The journey of left tackle Michael Oher from society castoff to NFL draft pick is compelling enough to keep the film’s creative team from dropping the ball (so to speak).
The movie also boasts a winning performance from Bullock, something I never thought I’d write. For me, she’s always been a one- note actress. If you’re a casting director looking for perky, she’s your gal. (Especially now that Meg Ryan resembles the Joker and can’t move her mouth.) Bullock brings a grit and reality to her role of the well-to-do southern family matriarch inexplicably drawn to Oher and his plight. At times, I forgot I was watching an A-lister. (Stay for the closing credits, by the way, when you’ll see how closely the actors match their real-life counterparts.) She might actually make that leap from leading lady to character actress, something most stars find impossible.
As a writer, part of me maintained an awareness of how emotionally-manipulative the film became. But at some point, if you’re going to have a satisfying experience, you just have to make a conscious decision to go with it. That’s part of the “willing suspension of disbelief” we hear so much about. My wife and I both left the theater feeling uplifted, which means the movie did its job. Even better, I got to watch the real Oher play later that evening on TV with a newfound appreciation of his accomplishments.
Contrast this with “Up in the Air,” the latest George Clooney film. I admire Clooney. Like Johnny Depp, he could easily make ten million or more a film and phone in his roles. Instead, in between his “Ocean’s” walk-throughs, he chooses interesting, meaningful material – “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana,” “Michael Clayton,” and “Brother Where Art Thou” come to mind – that probably would never get produced without his star power. “Up in the Air” is that kind of film, a major studio flick with an indie feel. The dialogue alone is worth the price of admission; it crackles with authenticity and ideas. Then there’s the chemistry between Clooney and his two female costars, which never falters.
But the movie has more on its mind. The script is as contemporary as today’s headlines, delving into the psyche of a man who shuns all connections while making his living as a corporate headhunter in reverse. You think you’d detest a character like that but you’d be wrong. The writers pull off a delicate balancing act, letting you root for the man while hating what he does. Watching his character slowly change his long-held sensibilities is a master course in understatement, especially when the tables begin to turn. Without giving too much away, the script stays true to itself from start to finish, never settling for those typical Hollywood feel-good moments. What we’re left with is a man who spends so much time avoiding getting locked in, he ultimately finds himself locked out. From a writing standpoint, the ending is every bit as satisfying as the “Blind Side,” albeit for different reasons. One film works because of the inspiration of its source material. The other works because it reveals larger truths.