I finally saw The Help.
It has such honorable subject matter that it puts a critic in a difficult place: You’ll sound insensitive and heartless if you criticize it.
But film critics aren’t asked to consider what a movie’s about so much as how the movie is about it. So, I’ve strapped on my bulletproof vest. Here we go. …
My favorite line of the evening came from someone in the audience, not the film.
An old man sat behind me. Hard of hearing, he kept asking his wife (rather loudly) for clarification on certain plot points.
At one point in the movie, a woman who has suffered her third miscarriage confesses to her maid that she won’t tell her husband about it. “He doesn’t even know about the two before,” she sobs.
The old man then asked his wife: “What the hell did she do with a two-by-four?”
As the crowd sat in solemn silence, absorbing the drama of the scene, I must have shaken a whole row of theatre seats struggling to maintain my composure.
Now, about the film:
There are some engaging performances here. Emma Stone stands up admirably in a crowd of actresses who can cry on cue. But most of them give “movie performances,” and few resemble actual human beings demonstrating actual human behavior. I was so grateful every time Jessica Chastain showed up onscreen. She was, at times, hilarious, and later in the film quite convincingly human (before the script requires her to deliver one of the film’s most superficially happy conclusions).
But every scene is stamped with its one emotional goal: Humor! Oscar-bait tear-jerking! Righteous anger! Political piety! Revulsion over how extreme evil! Historical solemnity! Vengeance/comeuppance satisfaction! (Oh, we’re served extra helpings of the latter. The only reason to set up such a comic book villain as Bryce Dallas Howard’s character is to set the audience up for a cheering and jerring celebration of her spectacular ruination at the end.)
It has all the subtlety of an episode of Desperate Housewives.
There was just enough good acting to keep me from walking out (although I came close on more than one occasion). But I learned nothing about the subject matter. I don’t think anybody will. I think it’s just another movie that preaches to the choir and sends us home feeling righteous indignation for people who are extremely hard-hearted, without asking us to consider how we are led into such cruelty incrementally.
And it congratulates us on our modern state of enlightenment at every turn. A few seconds after we see a cloud of cigarette smoke, a newsletter editor says, “One day they’ll discover that cigarettes’ll kill you!” The first time homosexuality is mentioned, someone is portrayed as a buffoon for believing there’s a “cure.” And Emma Stone’s character bears righteous indignation for her racist community from the opening scenes, as if she’s just time-traveled from today. This spares the audience the discomfort of watching a complicated character’s gradual moral awakening.
In the opening minutes, a maid who has become the “real mama” to a young girl comforts her by assuring her, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.” The film frames this line as being so important, we immediately know that the line will come back at the end, when it will be spoken with tremendous solemnity. And when it is, it sounds like the movie is congratulating itself: “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”
It might as well have added, “You is Oscar bait.”
In my more cynical moments, I can even imagine this winning Best Picture.
UPDATE: Scott Tobias’s review of The Help that rings true to my own experience with the film. And Jason Shawhan summed the movie up nicely in The Nashville Scene: “At best, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for everyone who insists they could never have gone along with the deeply institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. At worst, a comic lie that glosses over how such a scenario would have played out in real life. I think Viola Davis is stellar, and I don’t think the film deserves her. You can talk about friendships and giving voice to marginalized black and female characters, and I’m all for that. Stockett’s book and Taylor’s film gives voice to archetypes and schematics and cartoons. I wish, as a film, it was worthy of Davis’ performance. But it is not. It’s just another example of film that lets people congratulate themselves on ‘how far we’ve come.’”