Strong Performances Can't Anchor Lightweight 'Help'

August 11, 2011 4 min read

This ought to be the "feel-outraged hit of the summer." While the blockbuster heroes are busy fighting Nazis, commies and villains with no noses, "The Help" looks back at a time when Americans were fighting one of the toughest battles of all: racism.

It is sickening to know that a mere half-century ago, the States — particularly the Jim Crow South — were fully embroiled in legalized discrimination against blacks. It's more repugnant that few stood up against the practices.

Eugenia Phelan aka Skeeter (Emma Stone) is one of the lone white voices daring to confront the bigotry in Jackson, Miss. Having been brought up by an African-American maid herself, she witnesses her Southern belle friends turn into hideous beasts when it comes to the treatment of their servants.

The leader of this two-faced pack is the pert Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a debutante who relishes in ruining the life of her maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer). Down the road, absentee mother Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) all but relinquishes custody of her "plain-looking" daughter, Mae. The matronly, sweet-as-molasses Aibileen (Viola Davis) comes to her aid.

It's a world Skeeter can no longer relate to. She went and got herself a college education while her so-called associates latched onto husbands and popped out children like Pez dispensers. Her dream job is to become a journalist, but upon returning home, she gets saddled with ghostwriting a cleaning etiquette column. Not exactly the most scintillating subject for a proto-feminist.

Aibileen lends Skeeter a hand with the articles, forging a taboo partnership whites and blacks daren't pursue publicly back then. But in doing so, the spunky writer sees beyond the surface of everyday prejudices and realizes there's a compelling story to tell. Aibie and Minny reluctantly agree to dictate their histories as maids to Skeeter, knowing that the backlash upon publication could be deadly.

"The Help," like so many other Disney-funded, "big issue" films, adequately mixes the harsh and the lighthearted. (Minny's ultimate confrontation of the spoiled Hilly is a riot, as is Jessica Chastain's portrayal of the trashy yet bubbly Celia.) But only adequately. The dialogue drags in many scenes, padding an excruciating two-hours-and-17-minutes runtime.

Much of the faultiness may lie with inexperienced director Tate Taylor. His employment was seemingly a favor to his longtime friend, "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett. But favors between friends don't always make movie magic. This adaptation feels more like a Lifetime weekend film — too small and safe in scope to really make a difference and fully capture the heated emotion of the South in the 1960s. Caution didn't cause the revolution, so why should a silver-screen retelling tiptoe around the dark parts?

Perhaps if wrenched from the paws of Disney and divvied up to, say, Focus Features, "The Help" might have had more potency, more bite. There is nothing pretty about racism, but Taylor tries to put a nice little bow on it to appeal to modern, PC audiences.

"The Help" could use some assistance in getting its point across. Davis and Spencer certainly lift up its droopiness with their fiery performances, but for the most part, this movie is too tame and frilly for its subject matter.

"The Help." Rated: PG-13. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes. 2.5 stars.

To find out more about Melissa Bobbitt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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