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The Help

Submitted by MBergeron on August 9, 2011 – 1:28 amNo Comment
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For a PG-13 film The Help had so many references about “eating shit” that I actually thought it outdid The Change-Up in that film’s baby poop first scene. I’m sorry – no amount of vanilla extract will make human feces taste like chocolate pie. A smarter person that your humble scribe once said that no matter how much mayo one uses, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

As humble as the plot reads for The Help – young white idealist tries to change fin de siecle Jim Crow-era Mississippi – the movie misfires from beginning to end. That’s not to say it was unpleasant, in fact quite the contrary. Period clothing, widescreen composition and quaint anachronisms are my slice of pie, and The Help offers those in quantity.

Emma Stone plays a lily-white strawberry blonde, college-educated smarty-pants whose mission in life is to become a writer. She’s the only white character with a smidgen of sense. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have the meatiest roles as oppressed maids in a bigoted Southern town (Jackson, MS). The rest of the cast are either white men whose character is defined by their physique (small squirrelly guys are wacky and studly young men are useful as breeding material and little else), or white women with various degrees of racist leaning  (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain and Allison Janney) and big hair. If there’s an ironic aside to Howard’s role consider the fact that she starred in what is probably one of the most coherent rants against social intolerance, the Lars von Trier film Manderlay.

Howard is the enemy of Stone in this tale that veers more to melodrama than pure drama. Stone, working at the local paper as the advice columnist, want to turn the testimonials of Jackson’s hired help into an inspired best seller. The historical events set the story in the early 60s. In that period it’s conceivable that an East Coast university education would turn a Southern Belle into a radical agitator. Yet once the actual agitating starts it’s little more than a late night girlfriend session with cigarettes and coffee. There’s never a sense of danger like say in the also saccharin but effective Mississippi Burning (1988). Another film that came and went that dealt with the murder of Medgar Evers, a real personage briefly seen in The Help, was Ghosts of Mississippi  (1996). Some of the books that Stone has on her reading shelf include Native Son and To Kill A Mockingbird. The Help is but a semblance of those titles.

Flaws aside The Help is a film that can’t help but revel in the talent of actresses, in particular Howard, Davis, and really Chastain in a confusing role as a trophy wife without any real arc but with a passion that grasps the motives that the other cast members cannot hold.

- Michael Bergeron

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