Thursday, September 8, 2011
The Help (2011)
The Help (2011)
Dir. Tate Taylor
2.5 out of 5
The pie is mightier than the sword. That's an actual object lesson in The Help, a fictionalized melodrama about the peculiar intimacy of black domestic workers and their white employers in civil rights-era Jackson, Mississippi. It's a film that tries hard to be serious but can't help sticking out its tongue every now and then, as if desperate to break the monotony of all this grownup stuff.
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer star as two hardworking maids who reluctantly agree to let Emma Stone's plucky college graduate chronicle - anonymously - the juicy details and shocking revelations common to Jackson's black domestics, hoping it will draw greater attention to their plight. For a while, the film successfully toes the line between the joy of this unlikely sisterhood and the despair of three women who try to fit the roles defined for them with varying degrees of discomfort. Davis is the least feisty of the trio, but projects a convincing weariness when expounding on her lot in life. When she tells Stone in their initial interview that her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave, it's clear that to her the terms are practically interchangeable.
Ah, but then there's that pie. We have to go back a few steps to The Help's big bad, Bryce Dallas Howard, the queen bee of Jackson's insular group of bored, moneyed housewives. Her character oscillates between cloyingly inconsiderate and virulently racist as the plot dictates. Howard manages to pull this off without much affect (inescapable as Jim Crow was in the deep South, it might actually be accurate), but you have to feel for her and the other actors when the script takes them into movie-of-the-week territory, manipulating the audience with thuddingly obvious emotional cues. Sometimes this is done with a modicum of tact. But mostly it's along the lines of Spencer's relationship with a flighty bombshell (Jessica Chastain), full of wacky misadventures in housewifery one minute and sobbing admissions of miscarriages the next. The nadir is the ubiquity of the aforementioned pie, which satisfies the apparently generous number of people who were craving scatological humor in their civil rights dramas.
At a robust two and a half hours, The Help is helplessly overstuffed. Stone receives a worthy foil of her own in her matrimony-obsessed mother (Allison Janney), but she also gets stuck in a subplot with a tepid love interest (Chris Lowell). The latter is the annoying kind of character that appears in movies solely to remove all doubts about the heroine's sexual orientation. Not that The Help needs to address any more burning issues. In fact, the film deserves credit for being far less sanctimonious than it could have been, and for attempting to frame the story as the maids' and Stone's shared triumph. You will notice, however, that Stone is the only one with a snowball's chance of getting out of Jackson. The rest are left to hope that someday equality will exist at home - a difficult prospect when the home where you spend most of your time is not your own. The Help gives us a pretty good idea of the frustrating realities for black women at the time; it's just ironic and a little dispiriting that the movie is padded with equally prominent instances of white girl problems.