Review: “The Help”
“The Help” is a good movie that could have been a great movie, which for a critic can actually be more frustrating than watching a flat-out terrible movie. The reason is wasted potential and “The Help” never fully capitalizes on some outstanding performances and a compelling story.
First we’ll focus on the positive. “The Help” is based on the super-mega-best-selling novel that received a nice little boost from Oprah’s Book Club. It takes place in civil-rights-era Jackson, Mississippi where segregation is still the law of the day and African-American servants toil in dehumanizing conditions in the homes of the town’s white upper crust.
One of the products of the social elite is Skeeter Phelan (the lovely and charming Emma Stone), an educated woman who returns home from college with greater aspirations than making babies and playing bridge. Skeeter longs to be a writer and decides she wants to tell the stories of the local maids and the daily indignities they suffer. At first many of the housekeepers are reluctant to open up to a rich white girl, that is until the quiet, yet determined Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis in the defining performance of her career) and her best friend, the boisterous, headstrong Minny Jackson (scene stealer Octavia Spencer) step forward.
The trio must meet covertly as the mere discovery of their project could present some very real danger in the segregated South.
This relationship is the heart of the movie and the performances of these three women reveal so much tenderness, courage and heartbreak that they make the movie worth seeing all on their own.
Where “The Help” runs into problems is when Skeeter and the maids navigate the domestic social scene dominated by cliquish housewives. The queen bee of this circle is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is such a one-dimensional villain she might as well have been wearing a black hat and a swastika armband.
Director Tate Taylor bleeds any and all subtlety out of these scenes and goes for a lot of cheap laughs as he attempts to lighten the mood. There is one outrageous, gross-out moment that would be more at place in a teen comedy that Taylor goes to again and again to the point that it comes to dominate the last half of the movie. This would be like “True Grit” featuring the bean-eating scene from “Blazing Saddles,” and then that scene lasting for a third of the movie.
Even still, there are mostly good things to take away from “The Help,” including a couple of excellent supporting turns by Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s dementia-suffering mother, Cicely Tyson as Skeeter’s childhood nanny and Jessica Chastain as the social outcast who become’s Minny’s employer.
Keep your eye on Chastain, who also starred this year in “The Tree of Life,” as she is on the verge of a major career breakout.
Naturally the movie is a bit too long, but this is to be expected in the film adaptation of a popular novel as fans of the book want to see as many pages up on the screen as is possible.
In spite of all its flaws, “The Help” is a movie I have to recommend because any film that can find humanity while shining a bright light on this subject matter is certainly worth your while. Plus you can witness some tremendous acting performances to boot.
Still I can’t help but feel that this movie puts too glossy of a coat over one of the most shameful eras of American history as it plays out like “In the Heat of the Night” for the chick-lit set. “The Help” pulls its punches just when it has the audience on the ropes and makes you wish the filmmakers had been as brave as Aibileen and Minny.
“The Help” is rated PG-13 for thematic material.