By Eleanor Ringel Cater
I wish I didn’t have to say this, but “The Help” is a chore.
Of all the summer movies, it’s the one most people have asked me about — with the possible exception of “The Tree of Life…” People still stop me so they can rant about how terrible it is.
Well, can’t say I didn’t warn you.
“The Help” isn’t a cheat. Nor is it pretentious. But it is, alas, pretty inept and, more than that, a disappointment.
As a native Atlantan, raised with “help,” the movie obviously hits close to home, which is probably why I wish it were better.
Kathryn Stockett’s out-of-nowhere bestseller examined the “peculiar “ (and I mean the word to resonate) situation that existed between servants (99 per cent African-American) and employers (99 per cent white) in the South for most of the 20th century. I wasn’t able to finish the book. Nothing against Stockett; I just don’t read much fiction.
So, while I admire her success and her tenaciousness, I have no idea how much of the problem arises from her text and how much can be blamed on the adaptation by Tate Taylor, who also directs.
(I give Stockett triple kudos for loyalty; as I understand it, Taylor is an old friend; and she promised him that, if there ever was a movie, he’d get to direct… that she would insist on it).
But, as a movie, “The Help” hands us a slap on the wrist when a knee to the groin or a fist in the face is what’s needed.
The movie is safe…cutesy in the manner that occasionally crops up in 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (a far more accurate and, ultimately, more troubling film).
Set in the early 1960s, “The Help”’ centers on three women: one white, Skeeter (Emma Stone, also in “Crazy Stupid Love”) and two black, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer).
A would-be writer, Skeeter hits on the idea (admittedly enlightened for the time…for the next 20 or 40 years, actually) of writing about her privileged circle in her Mississippi hometown from the maids’ point of view.
To do so, she enlists the initially reluctant Aibileen and Minnie. They are, after all, risking far more than she.
The movie acknowledges it takes a certain amount of courage for these women — who are eventually joined by a dozen or so others — to go on record with their stories. But Taylor has no idea how to convey any sense of danger.
The most villainous person in the piece is a silly, frilly, fussy Junior League type, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) who harrumphs and fidgets and is often just plain old’ mean (like an Alpha Dog sorority girl) with tiresome predictability. She’s like someone who wandered over from a crummy community theatre production of “Steel Magnolias.”
Atlanta’s Dana Ivey (though she hasn’t lived here in years) contributes a more matronly version of the same thing in a cameo as the bigoted president of the local DAR, but even she seems unduly reined in (interesting factoid: Ivey was the original Miss Daisy in the original off-Broadway production, but lost out to Jessica Tandy for the movie).
Davis, who’s wowed us in other films such as “Doubt,” is just too damn good to deliver a purely clichéd performance, but she has to summon every bit of her considerable acting chops to make her character even vaguely two-dimensional. At times, Aibileen, as written, comes off as impossibly saintly. Whatever grit’s there is, I’m certain, is provided by Davis.
Spencer is good at looking resolute and sick to death of Hilly and all her kind in Mississippi…and, for that matter, the rest of the world. She gets the movie’s “big” moment when she serves her former employer a slice of, um, humbling pie. But, like Davis, she seems constrained by the limitations of her role.
Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek nails the embarrassing role of Hilly’s cantankerous mother. Along with Davis, she’s the best thing in the film, but asking her to do a variation of “The Beverly Hillbillies’” Granny (swimming pools, movie stars) is a little like asking Seabiscuit to pull a plough.
However, Spacek, like Ivey, provides a connection to an infinitely better examination of the uncomfortably recent Old South.
In 1990, she and Whoopi Goldberg (fresh off her “Ghost” Oscar and still doing some real acting) co-starred in “The Long Walk Home.” Set within the context of the Montgomery bus strike in the mid 1950s, this extraordinary (and unaccountably under-appreciated) film accomplishes more in one scene more than “The Help” does in its sorry entirety.
Exquisitely acted, expertly written, and absolutely committed to making an audience uncomfortable (though, like “Miss Daisy, it has plenty of humor), “The Long Walk Home” is every bit the memorable picture “The Help” should have been.