Whatever can be said about writer-director Tate Taylor’s film of The Help, there’s no denying that it knows how to work the audience it’s primraily aimed at. It’s also without a doubt a superbly acted film, and its intentions are certainly good. Plus, it probably achieves what it sets out to do at least 75 percent of the time. It’s not particularly accomplished filmmaking and it tries to stuff too much into a single movie, but it’s good, solid mainstream moviemaking—and that’s not such a bad thing. And if it gets Viola Davis the Oscar she should have won in 2008 for Doubt, even better.
The Help is basically your standard high-minded, socially-conscious movie—designed for maximum emotional impact with a minimum of guilt or discomfort for the viewer. Perhaps that’s why The Help is getting far more audience attention than the superior—and much less comfortable—The Long Walk Home did in 1991. The Help sets out to be a crowd-pleaser, while The Long Walk Home set out to be painfully true. Interestingly, Sissy Spacek is in both movies, but she was the white lead in the former and was allowed to be much clumsier and ill-informed than her counterpart (Emma Stone) is here. Now, Spacek has been given a role that feels like a holdover from Steel Magnolias (1989) as a tragi-comic figure that the film is interested in more for the comic than the tragic. In fact, The Help comes across as a kind of mix of The Long Walk Home and Steel Magnolias.
This isn’t entirely a bad thing. What harms the film more is its overstuffed nature. It simply tries to pack in too much, even within a generous 137-minute running time. The central story—set in 1963—is about fresh-from-college Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who lands a low-paying job at the local paper doing a household-help column, despite knowing nothing about the topic. To get her through this, she enlists the aid a friend’s maid, Aibileen Clark (Davis), and soon becomes more interested in Aibileen and her story than in the column. Through Aibileen, she gets another maid, the outspoken Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), to open up. A prospective New York book editor (Mary Steenburgen) wants at least a dozen such interviews—and she wants them quick “before this whole Civil Rights thing blows over.”
Now, that—and getting the other interviews and the local reaction to the fictionalized book—is the main story, but because of the nature of the stories within that story, there’s more. Much of it works—especially Minny’s relationship with her latest employer, the “white trash” Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life), who is, if anything, even more looked down upon than the black maids. There’s also a plot-line concerning the utterly—but memorably so—villainous Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), her firing of Minny, and Minny’s revenge. This turns into a major issue, but it’s placed in the film in such a way that Hilly’s dotty mother (Spacek) just disappears without explanation part way through and we, awkwardly, only find out why much later.
More, we have to wade through Skeeter’s own problems with her ailing mother (Allison Janney) and just exactly what happened to Skeeter’s old nanny (Cicely Tyson). Some of this works. Some of it doesn’t. Worst of all, is the pointless intrusion of a boyfriend (TV actor Chris Lowell), which should have been left out or reduced to their first meeting, since it adds nothing to the film—unless someone decided it might be good to make it clear that Skeeter isn’t a lesbian like her mom fears might be the case. And this is a film that suffers from a case of Return of the King-itis, seemingly set for the final fade-out two or three times before it actually ends.
However, I am not saying this is a mediocre movie by any stretch of the imagination—merely that it’s a little tentative and timid and it never achieves actual greatness. What really holds the film in place and makes it worthwhile are the performances. There’s not really a bad one in the bunch—even Bryce Dallas Howard’s unbridled nastiness has nuances of a woman so frightened by the prospect of change and loss of control that it expresses itself in meanness. Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek all bring more to their roles than the roles demand or offer. But the performance that means the most is that of Viola Davis. She alone has the power to command the screen and imbue the film with the kind of not-easily-dismissed gritty credibility it otherwise lacks. See it for her if nothing else. Rated PG-13 for thematic material.