The Hollywood adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's The Help captures all the humidity of Civil Rights-era Mississippi, but scarcely any of the dramatic heat. Screenwriter/director Tate Taylor illuminates the details of Southern living under Jim Crow — the food, the fashion, the omnipresent sweat and racial tensions — without unifying them in a compelling narrative.
A little-known actor and filmmaker, Taylor got the gig partially through his lifelong friendship with Stockett and proves overly respectful of his BFF's source material. At well over two hours, The Help presents tons of subplots but takes forever to build momentum, and lurches awkwardly between manipulative pathos and kitschy comedy.
The Help's promising premise uses humor to illuminate entrenched Southern racism. In Jackson, Miss., well-heeled white socialites advocate for separate bathrooms for their African-American housekeepers. As the narrator Aibileen, Viola Davis lives under a hypocritical system that denies her human rights but entrusts her to raise white babies. "You is smart, you is kind, you is important," Aibileen tells one of her chubby charges, who later coos, "You're my real mama!" The Help restrains itself from flashing "AWW!" like an applause sign.
Among the bridge-playing Junior Leaguers, college graduate Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) arrives as a black sheep, more interested in pursuing a journalism career than getting married and having babies. Skeeter asks Aibileen for help in writing a domestic advice column, then gets on the idea to interview her and other maids for a book on "the help's" point of view, despite the risks of ostracism, racial hostility and possible criminal prosecution.
Studio films that emphasize the white perspective of the Civil Rights Movement always flirt with racial condescension, but The Help never loses sight of African-American anger and frustration, particularly through Octavia Spencer's turn as outspoken Minny Jackson.
The film blames virtually all of the community bigotry on Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Skeeter's imperious, increasingly estranged high school friend. The Help takes such pains to show Hilly's control over other women, and such delight in playing pranks on the character, that it's as if racism wouldn't exist without her. Like Mean Girls transplanted to the heart of Dixie, Hilly's hateful, underwritten psychology gradually becomes more intriguing than the saintly protagonists.
The talented actresses play off each other with warmth and respect but tend to deliver one-note performances, particularly Jessica Chastain as a trashy, nouveau riche bride ostracized by Hilly's friends. Apart from Leslie Jordan's brief appearances as a colorful newspaper editor, the Southern men come across as suntanned ciphers. Overall, the film falls short of such powerful segregation dramas as The Long Walk Home, but if you're a fan of Steel Magnolias' sentimentality, The Help will serve you just fine.
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