I can’t say much for Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, having never read it. After having watched its big screen adaptation, The Help movie takes an issue as charged as racism, sorry, RACISM all caps, and turns it into a bloated after-school special (it logs in at around 2 hours and 15 minutes) complete with an “inspirational” end-credits song that’ll have you sprinting for the exits. There are times when it plays like a Lifetime movie you might see at 1:30 in the afternoon except without the tampon commercials.
Is it a good movie? That might be stretching it a little.
It is an obvious and safe one. “Safe” in that you know exactly what you’re in for and in that sense you won’t be disappointed. You won’t be particularly enlightened or challenged either, but it is easy-to-digest, filled with clearly delineated heroes and boo-hiss villains that may as well be wearing hoods for all the depth they’re allowed. And in case you need some help, the heavy-handed score tells you exactly what to feel (Inspired? Outraged?) and when you should be feeling it. “Safe” is the movie’s biggest compliment as well as its harshest criticism.
You walk out knowing that racism in all its forms is bad. And we’re all people too and if you can remember the lyrics from “We Are the World” or “Ebony and Ivory,” then you’ve got the movie down.
The movie opens in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s. Not a great time and place to be black. You can sense the racial unrest just around the edges but in this little corner of Jackson, everything is all white, er, all right. For now.
We enter a world of rich white women whose children are literally being raised by the Help while the white women do white women things like play Bridge, have soirees, and drink Mint Juleps. Tough life.
A local lady has come back to Jackson. Her name is Eugenia Phelan (ray of light Emma Stone). Her nickname is Skeeter. She’s returned from Ole Miss University to take care of her ailing mother (Allison Janney, perfectly cast). Skeeter wants to be a writer and takes a job at the local rag churning out cleaning advice columns even though she doesn’t know a thing about cleaning. The maid who raised Skeeter (Cicely Tyson, shown in beatific flashback) has just left days before Skeeter returned without saying goodbye. Clearly that’s a Backstory that must be addressed near the end of the movie.
But what to do about the Cleaning column?
Skeeter decides to get some help from The Help of one of her childhood frenemies Elizabeth (Ahna O’ Reilly). Elizabeth’s maid’s name is Aibileen (Doubt’s Viola Davis). Aibileen does everything for Elizabeth’s family, most importantly raising her daughter Mae Mobley because Elizabeth is way too whitely self-absorbed to raise children with any sort of competence.
We learn that Aibileen has raised over a dozen white children and seen them grow up to be as close-minded as their parents. We also learn that she had a son that died in a Backstory that must be addressed before the end of the movie.
Aibileen’s good at her job, and more or less accepted the harsh realities of her lot in life. You can tell she wants more, but life has told her it isn’t safe to reach out of your station, especially here in Jackson.
Skeeter also reunites with her best friend from childhood Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, as a one-note easy-to-hate villain). Hilly has married into wealth, lives with her alcoholic mother (Sissy Spacek), and really, really hates black people but unsubtly hides it beneath her veneer of tolerance and keeping things “separate but equal.”
Case in Point: Hilly makes sure none of The Help can share toilets with any of the white people because “their kind has so many diseases.” She also calls black people “Nigras” with a sneer. Fucking White People.
Give me a second while I try to remember since there are about 75 characters in The Help and all of them seem to have their own Character Dossier which really doesn’t help the movie’s running time. No wonder some of the maid characters need to use the White Bathroom a lot, the movie’s too long.
Skeeter, Elizabeth, Aibileen, Hilly, that one white lady with the accent, the other white lady with the accent, the one white lady with the rack. All accounted for. Good.
Oh yeah, there’s Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). She’s one of Aibileen’s friends and Hilly’s maid. But something tells you that their relationship is tenuous at best as Hilly hates Negroes and Minny’s got such attitude even though she knows it’s best not to sass the white folk lest she get fired or hanged or whatever white people did back then to entertain themselves.
Anyway, while Skeeter’s talking to Aibileen about Cleaning Solutions, she realizes a Very Important Lesson (take notes, kids): Black People…are people too. They have feelings and stories and opinions and stuff just like whitey. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s NOT their greatest joy in life to be looking after Casper’s every want and need.
Skeeter’s not going to pull a Bullock and help these ladies play football. No sir, Skeet Skeet calls her New York Editor Ms. Stein (Mary Steenburgen) and proposes a book of stories from the point of view of The Help.
Ms. Stein likes the idea in general amidst this tumultuous period in history. It has the possibility to be a bestseller, but Skeeter’s going to have to get some authentic stories. A lot of them. And get a better title than Stories From Black Maids about Working for White Devils.
Skeeter pitches this idea to Aibileen and Minny. They’re afraid because it’s technically against Mississippi law for black and white people to be conversing for any extended period of time. Not that black people really need to do much to be considered breaking the law back then.
Will Aibileen and Minny overcome their fear and tell their stories, giving a voice to a generation of oppressed women who’ve been overlooked and downgraded by their white overseers? SPOILER. Um…yeah.
Will other maids tell their stories, giving a voice to a generation of…just read the above sentence again? SPOILER. Yes…shocker there.
Will White Devil eventually find out what’s going on? Can’t answer that. Wouldn’t want to ruin it too much since you couldn’t see anything else coming a mile away.
Will Matt Damon play good enough rugby and Morgan Freeman say enough inspiring things to overcome racism in apartheid-torn South Africa? Maybe.
Will Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained be exponentially more entertaining than this Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation? Definitely.
Am I glad I saw this for Free? Goodness yes.
Would I rather be watching Final Destination 5? Yup.
Would I rather be watching Glee in 3D? No
What works with The Help–
1) Emma Stone- you’ve heard it said before that any actor can do well with good material, but it takes a special one to elevate lesser work. While The Help isn’t necessarily “lesser,” it is generic and obvious. Stone manages to remain more than watchable in every frame she’s in, making Skeeter the best drawn white character in the entire movie.
2) It’s a nice reversal from pretty much any other movie, but the main black characters are so much better written than the white caricatures. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer create well-rounded beings that actually appear like they have lives other than being Aunt Jemima-ish stereotypes.
3) Sissy Spacek looks like she’s drunk-acting in an entirely different movie but it appears she’s enjoying herself, and consequently we are too. More of her, less of any other the other white characters.
What doesn’t work-
1) Written for the screen and directed with TV-movie sensibility by Tate Taylor, The Help’s attempts to alleviate heavy subject matter with humor are uneven and forced, particularly a sequence involving a Very Special Pie, which feels more apropos in something like The Hangover. The Joke’s funny once, maybe even twice, but it gets repeated to a tiresome effect as to make you wonder if the joke goes on, with greatly diminishing returns, till the end credits. Damn near.
2) The movie might have been a lot more powerful had the villain Hilly not been such an obvious (there’s that word again, but it applies for most of The Help) moustache-twirler with little if any human qualities other than she hates Blacks and is rich. There are times when you half-expect her to start burning crosses on lawns simply because there’s no place else for her character to go. Bryce Dallas Howard has proven to be a more than capable actress, but even she can’t do much with such thin characterization.
3) Just like the Blind Side, the unspoken argument that if it weren’t for a driven White Lady, none of this would have ever happened. Save us, Enlightened White Person, Save Us!!!
Overall. If you want to see a smart, incisive, touching movie with Emma Stone see Crazy Stupid Love. If you want to see a movie opening this weekend starring a cast member of Zombieland, see Jessie Eisenberg in 30 Minutes or Less. But if you want to relieve some of your Whitey Guilt with something that goes down easy and leaves no aftertaste, see The Help and feel righteously cleansed as racism was never an issue again. Unless the LAPD is anywhere around. Other than that, it’s good overall.