"The Help" Review
Kathryn Stockett's popular 2009 novel "The Help" arrives this week with a faithful and very affecting big-screen adaptation. It's simplistic at times, and flirts with manipulation, but it's also a deeply touching and well-acted film.
Set in early 1960s Mississippi, "The Help" tells the story of African-American maids who care for the children and homes of wealthy white families, encountering horrible cruelty and racism, even a century after the Civil War and a decade after Brown v. Board of Education. Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) are the two primary maids, while the third protagonist is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young college graduate who decides to write a book about the maids and their experiences.
It's the most female of movies - for once, it's the male characters who are underdeveloped and largely inconsequential to the plot.
The film was written and directed, mostly competently, by Tate Taylor, a near-neophyte who had the great fortune of being the lifelong best friend of Stockett, the author of the book.
Now, a whole lot of recent Hollywood movies about the civil rights era - especially "Mississippi Burning" and "Ghosts of Mississippi"- and have had the problem of being told primarily through white people's eyes, with white protagonists and primary concern with the white characters' journeys. The filmmakers of "The Help" seem very, very concerned with avoiding this problem, a sense I got from the deeply bizarre Entertainment Weekly article last week in which just about everyone associated with the film mentioned it.
Does it succeed in doing so? Partially. On the one hand, the two maid characters are the clear heart and soul of the film, and the movie makes their story the most compelling aspect by a mile. But on the other hand, why do these women need someone to write a book for them?
Much more problematic is that, up until a couple of third-act shifts, the movie depicts all of its heroines as really, really good, and all of its villains as very, very bad.
Like a lot of movies about civil rights, "The Help" makes one character the personification of all of racism's evils, and in this case it's Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard as the most evil human being who has ever lived.
She's racist, elitist, hypocritical, a bully, a bad mother, daughter, wife, boss and friend. She's practically a cartoon character, although the movie clearly has some crowd-pleasing fun building her up and then putting her through multiple humiliations in the third act.
Stone, playing apparently the only white liberal in all of Mississippi, continues her hot streak with a good enough turn to justify her character's existence. Allison Janney is wonderful as Stone's mother, while Jessica Chastain (the mother in "Tree of Life") brings surprising depth as an apparent bimbo housewife whose character takes a turn you won't expect.
But the movie truly belongs to Davis and Spencer, who give heartbreaking performances as women both concealing and ultimately sharing a lifetime worth of hurt. Both deserve serious Oscar consideration.
"The Help" is based on a very beloved novel that I have not read, though it is a favorite of my wife and most of the women in my family; fans of the book will get to enjoy a deeply touching and at times heartbreaking adaption.
Note: I read this week that Tyler Perry has endorsed and recommended the film. Which is ironic, since my first thought as the credits rolled was thankfulness that the film wasn't called "Tyler Perry's 'The Help.'"
Also this week:
"30 Minutes or Less"
Here's one of the stranger movies of the year: an R-rated, raunchy, violent and very funny comedy, apparently based on a real-life case that didn't end up all that funny.
"30 Minutes or Less" was directed by Ruben Fleischer, best known for "Zombieland," and brings much of the same combination of anarchic action comedy, '80s movie nostalgia and Jesse Eisenberg. This is no comedy classic, but it delivers plenty of laughs, thanks to a witty script and no less than five very hilarious performances.
The plot concerns a couple of idiots (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who, in a laughably intricate plot involving the murder of McBride's father and his plans to open a tanning salon/brothel, decide to kidnap a pizza delivery boy (Eisenberg), strap a bomb to his chest and get him to rob a bank.
Eisenberg has to navigate the situation along with his best friend (Aziz Ansari), while a lisping hitman (Michael Pena) further complicates matters.
Eisenberg and Ansari have hilarious chemistry, while McBride gets to project an authority I'm not used to seeing from him outside of "Eastbound and Down."
And Swardson, a very funny stand-up comic who has mostly been relegated to embarrassing supporting roles in Adam Sandler movies, gets to be funny here, too.
The dialogue is consistently hilarious, while the various '80s homages are obvious but funny anyway.
While the filmmakers swear it's just a coincidence, the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the case of Brian Wells, a Pennsylvania pizza man who in 2003 claimed that he was outfitted with a "collar bomb" and told to rob a bank; the definitive account of the case is this Wired magazine piece from last year.
Just one complaint: There's a scene inserted post-credits that's just plain bad, to the point where i actually recommend that you leave as soon as the credits start. You'll enjoy the movie more that way.
No, "30 Minutes or Less" doesn't break any ground, but it's consistently, and unabashedly funny.
- The Silver Screen Rating for The Help: 4 stars (out of 5)
- The Silver Screen Rating for 30 Minutes or Less: 4 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: The Help
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard
Length: 2 hours and 17 minutes
Roll Credits: 30 Minutes or Less
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBridge, Nick Swardson, Michael Pena
Length: 83 minutes
Both films appear at:
Regal Warrington Crossing 22—Click on the link for show times.