Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help

The Help is based on Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel about a young white female writer who exposes the harsh realities of the black help in Jackson, Mississippi circa 1960. I certainly hope that Stockett’s novel, unread by me, moves along faster than director Tate Taylor’s new film.  If the book is even remotely as laborious as the movie, I can’t imagine anyone would finish it.

Skeeter (Emma Stone) is a fresh college graduate who, unlike most of her contemporaries, treats everyone equally and with respect.  Struggling for a new idea, she soon asks a local maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis), to detail the trials and tribulations of being a paid servant. 

For the first hour and half of its nearly two and half hour running time, The Help spends equal time with Skeeter, Aibileen, Aibileen’s feisty best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer), the town bitch, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), and the town outcast, Celia (Jessica Chastain).  We weave in and out of the women’s lives, until the film’s final act, when virtually every conversation revolves around the contents of a single pie.

As mentioned, The Help is long.  Its scenes drag on with no real structured narrative.  The movie, for instance, is occasionally narrated by Aibileen, meaning her voice conveniently drops in for a few moments, then fades away for a half hour or so.  It’s a lazy narrative device, one that feels it was done in post production to try and save face.

The Help is really nothing more than an extended Hallmark movie, far better suited as a movie-of-the-week on cable.  The characters are broadly defined to the point of annoyance, each given a very specific one-note arc to achieve.  And the unrealistic, kid-friendly content (the N-word is only spoken when people are REALLY mad; cigarettes are often seen lit, but rarely smoked; domestic abuse is spoken of, but never seen) doesn’t help much either.

But aside from its extremely weak script, aimless direction, and impractically warm photography, The Help is suited with something that could get its named mentioned come awards time: stellar acting performances.

Emma Stone, capping off a great year, does very well anchoring the film from the white perspective, while Viola Davis delivers yet another flawless performance as the main actor of the black cast.  Davis’ brief single scenes in Antwone Fisher, World Trade Center, and Doubt are not only devastating, but arguably the highlight of each film.  Her work in The Help (almost) makes the film worthy.

Likewise Spencer and Howard, who bring specific levels of furiousness to their respective roles.  But for me, the real highlight was Jessica Chastain.  Brilliant as the mother in The Tree of Life, Chastain does wonders with her Celia Foote.  She’s rambunctious, nervous, hilarious and can make the simple act of planting a flower utterly devastating.  Get ready to start seeing Chastain's name a lot more.
Chastain and Spencer
Casting great actors is one thing, giving them proper material is something completely different.  The biggest issue with The Help is the complete lack of character evolution.   All the main characters in the film end exactly as they began, with their initial motivations still intact.  Don’t get me wrong, change isn’t a necessary component for a good film. Daniel Plainview doesn’t have to waltz into the sunset singing a show tune to convince me that the performance is great. 

But The Help is about change (the tagline for the movie confirms this).  And while change is apparently the entire point of the film, we never see any.  The bitch is still the bitch, the do-gooder is still the do-gooder, the strong willed are still the strong willed, and so on.  The film’s lack of change is irritating to the point that after 137 minutes, I was left thinking “that’s all?”

Yes, that is all.  Two and half hours of boredom sprinkled with spirited moments from an ever-so-talented cast.  Shame shame shame.  C-


  1. the novel is much loved. as is emma stone. this sounds like the perfect idea for a movie. but from yours (and other reviews) it sounds like they needed a new script and a director more suited to the material.

    i think a lot of people are going to be very disappointed when they see this after gushing over the book.

  2. I haven't seen the film. But your closing title pretty much sums it all for me.

    Nice review.

  3. Thanks man. Some of our fellow LAMBs seemed to have enjoyed it. Just didn't do it for me.

  4. @Toby, yeah, that's kind of the consensus I'm getting from lovers of the book.

  5. Appalling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days. Good Review! Check out mine when you can!

  6. The novel was outstanding! (you should read it). I watched the movie and was a bit disappointed (as always, they changed a lot of stuff).

  7. Ah everyone says how good the novel is, I may just have to concede and read it.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Another entrant in my poop theory of movies!