Monday, September 26, 2011

 

All Things Being Equal


By Josh R
It would be comforting, if more than a little naïve, to imagine that we live in truly equitable society. Certain politicians insist that the existence of what is broadly outlined as “The Welfare State” robs people of the initiative to strive and achieve — an assertion that would only make sense if everyone started out at the same place, with identical advantages and without the kind of obstacles that apply only under given sets of circumstances. That’s a nice way of saying that most people’s futures are predetermined by factors completely beyond their control — for all but a select few, the future is less about choice than the choices that have been made for you.

The Help, based on the controversial best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, is a film that examines the imbalances created by a society that insists on keeping all its members in their “proper place,” and the toll such casual dispensation of injustice can take on the human soul. Specifically, the film is dealing with racial inequality in the American South in the early 1960s — but the mere existence of this film testifies to another, perhaps even more startling imbalance of the type that Hollywood usually pretends not to notice. It isn’t difficult to reel off a list of films which not only feature predominantly male casts, but feature strong, complex roles for multiple cast members; I can think of at least five or six films released in the past year which gave as many male actors the chance to shine. There are certainly female-driven ensemble films being made — this summer alone, the vastly overrated Bridesmaids has seemingly tapped into a new market by proving that women can do lame-brained, frat-boy type humor just as successfully as men do — but how many films can you name that furnish fully realized, challenging and provocative female roles for all but a few of its members? How many films have ever featured not one, nor even two, but an entire gallery of great female performances? A handful of classics stand out — Stage Door and The Women remain the gold standard, more than 70 years after their initial releases — but for the most part, great female ensemble pieces have been few and far between. While there have been notable recent exceptions — the films of Rodrigo Garcia have showcased several of our best contemporary actresses to terrific effect — The Help may be the first big-budget, mass-market film in many a year that has made full and glorious use of a large, diverse and extremely talented collection of female performers. It is due to their efforts that The Help — a good film, if hardly a great one — transcends whatever limitations the material may have and provides an eminently satisfying, emotionally rewarding filmgoing experience.


The Help of the title are African-American women employed as domestic servants in the households of young, pampered white socialites in Jackson, Miss., at the dawning of the Civil Rights era. The mistresses — who seem mostly to regard things such as marriage and parenting as tiresome, unwelcome distractions from the unending cycle of events on the Junior League social calendar — regard their maids with equal measures of indifference and suspicion. Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate and aspiring journalist, returns to her childhood home in Jackson to work at a local newspaper. Returning to one’s roots inevitably entails reverting to old patterns; her social life is quickly commandeered by a circle of former high school friends, presided over with an iron fist by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), an unctuous queen bee who spends the bulk of her time cheerfully campaigning for the installation of separate toilets in households that employ black servants. Uncomfortable with the behaviors and attitudes she encounters, Skeeter decides to write an expose of Jackson society, as told from the point of view of the help. To that end, she persuades two domestic servants — the cautious, reserved Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and feisty, indignant Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) — to share their experiences working in various households, providing a glimpse into what happens behind closed doors, drawn curtains and the pretense of Southern gentility. Although the women are initially reluctant to participate, they eventually find a sense of purpose in revealing both the casual indignities and more harrowing instances of degradation and cruelty they witness and experience as second-class citizens in a segregated culture. When the book is published, it creates shockwaves felt both far and wide; once the truth has been dragged out in the open, no one is entirely prepared to deal with the repercussions.

The Help is directed by Tate Taylor, who also penned its screenplay. While the film represents a competent effort, it inevitably feels like the work of a novice filmmaker; it’s not particularly interesting from a visual standpoint, the tone is uncertain throughout (not all of its scenes seem to belong in the same film) and the pacing is slightly off, with certain scenes feeling oddly truncated while others seem hyper-extended. Many cast members have been coaxed in the direction of caricature — making it all the more remarkable how successfully they avoid the trap of existing on a one-dimensional level. There are exaggerated aspects to all but a handful of the performances, but the exaggeration doesn’t upset the balance of characterization — even when Spencer (a previously unheralded talent who is a delight from start to finish) is dispensing cantankerous sass in a manner which may bring to mind Hattie McDaniel, it doesn’t come across as stereotypical behavior — there’s still the sense of a real person behind the bulging eyes and grumbling retorts.

The well-meaning, conscientious Skeeter is the kind of role that almost never works; the character’s unvarying decency is like a salve for liberal guilt. Fortunately, Emma Stone is a creative, resourceful actress capable of projecting genuine personality even in less-than-ideal circumstances; she has some of Debra Winger’s off-the-cuff spontaneity, and invests the role with enough in the way of quirky intelligence to make you (mostly) forget how narrowly conceived the character is. On the other side of the spectrum, the vile, epithetic-spewing Hilly is writ so large, and in such a poisonous hand, that the easy choice for Bryce Dallas Howard would have been to render her as a vessel of pure, unadulterated evil — whereas Stone has to whip up something from nothing, Howard has to avoid the temptation to oversimplify matters. Thankfully, she doesn’t fall into that trap — her Hilly is suitably detestable, but not a cardboard villainess with a one-dimensional pathology. The audience has to want this Southern-fried witch, with her steely beauty-pageant smile and propensity for making people suffer, to get what’s coming to her; at the same time, Howard clues you in to where Hilly’s rottenness originates (racists are made, not born), and what it has cost her to preserve it. The hatred and fear that have been instilled in Hilly from birth, and that she carries around with her day after grinding day without reprieve or relief, is so corrosive that it’s eating her alive. The character may be rendered in very broad strokes, but she’s recognizably, pitiably human. The same holds true for the insecure blonde bombshell Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a social pariah who forms an unlikely bond with Minny. The ubiquitous Chastain — whose distant, ethereal quality works much more effectively in this context than in the suspense thriller The Debt — has the sweet, slightly dazed manner of Marilyn Monroe in her post-Strasberg years, and delivers a genuinely affecting performance that appeals to the audience’s sympathy without begging for it. Like Howard, she has a fine line to walk — Celia could easily come across as a pathetic dingaling, all curves and nervous giggles — but the performance, while exaggerated, never feels fake or forced.

The efforts of the younger cast members are nicely offset by the contributions of a trio of scene-stealing veterans. The redoubtable Sissy Spacek, who is no stranger to playing Southern eccentrics (but is usually pitch-perfect no matter what she’s doing), delivers a master class in how to play a smallish role for all it’s worth. As Hilly’s dotty mother, she has some choice bits of comic business, and handles the assignment with unflagging aplomb; so well-enshrined is Spacek’s reputation as a dramatic actress, it’s easy to forget how comfortably comedy falls into her wheelhouse. Allison Janney, who is given considerably more screen time, has a qualified success in the role of Skeeter’s evasive, cancer-riddled mother, a woman too image-conscious to act on the courage of her convictions. The performance is a bit more vivid than it needs to be — while all of the actors flirt dangerously with caricature, Janney is the only who takes it past the tipping point — but she handles the quieter moments well, and she and Stone strike up a crackling combative rhythm in their confrontation scenes. Cicely Tyson has a lovely, heart-rending cameo as Skeeter’s beloved childhood nanny, who is nowhere in evidence when her former charge returns to Jackson; her unexplained absence preys on Skeeter’s thoughts even as she trains her gaze on the goings-on in other peoples’ houses.

As strong as the ensemble work is, one performer deserves (at the very least) a paragraph all to herself. As Aibileen, Viola Davis pushes beyond the film’s comfort zone, bringing the hard, cold realities of its subject matter into razor-sharp focus. It isn’t a noisy, flashy performance; you have only to look in Aibileen’s sad, weary eyes to feel the crushing weight of her circumscribed, hardscrabble life of backbreaking labor and heartbreaking compromise, absorbing daily blows to her dignity in soul-killing silence. Without that anchoring presence, The Help would probably exist on the same level as Beaches or Steel Magnolias — a glossy, feel-good product that deals with big emotions in a facile, airbrushed manner, with swelling musical cues to signal when to reach for the Kleenex. The other actresses (all terrific) lend it tartness and sweetness, but Davis is the one who gives it gravity — she delves deep below the surface to unearth a rawness that feels at once both universal and intensely personal; the sense of hurt and suppressed anger she brings to the part cuts right to the bone. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood will afford her the chance to plumb these depths on a consistent basis — as stated previously, it would be foolish to assume that, even in The Age of Obama, the same range of opportunities are available to everyone. On the evidence of The Help, it is clear that Viola Davis is more than willing to go to those places — if she gets more parts like this, the results will be riveting.

On the merits of the performances, there can be little room for doubt; still, it is probably worth questioning whether an African-American author or filmmaker would have placed the character of Skeeter so firmly at the center of the narrative. For the record, The Help is not the story of a courageous, selfless white woman coming to the aid of helpless black people; nor is fair to say that Stockett and Taylor treat their subject matter with any lack of intelligence and sensitivity. Nevertheless, The Help isn’t really as tough-minded as it pretends to be — it cheats on the side of entertainment. I’m not enough of an authority to say whether or not it qualifies as good history; it certainly provides the occasion for some great ensemble acting. The women of The Help are totally invested in their roles, and thoroughly engaged with one another — that, in and of itself, provides cause for celebration.

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Comments:
This is probably one of the better reviews i've read for this film. I don't think "The Help" is the life-affirming inspirational tale it's champions purport it to be, nor do i think it's the backwards thinking piece of racist trash haters are claiming. Overall i think it's pretty mediocre, and I agree with your sentiment that it feels as if it was haphazardly edited together from completely different films.

The film would be easy to disregard if it weren't for the female performances. I do feel like Bryce Dallas Howard, for all the heart she did have, was wildly off key; she chewed scenery with a reckless abandon even in scenes that didn't call for it, and it was done with such a desperate desire for attention that it actually made me uncomfortable.

And as great as I thought Viola Davis was, Jessica Chastain is the film’s greatest asset by a long shot. To see an actress going dumb blonde and ditzy, yet still able to express heart and real depth of character is quite a treat; it’s a performance style that most people disregard since it isn’t grounded in the “dramatic acting” pop culture has come to associate with great acting, but the charisma and comedic timing required for a character like Celia makes it very difficult indeed. Her companionship with Minny (Octavia Spencer, another highlight for me) was extremely heartfelt and genuine, and makes this otherwise okay film an enjoyable sit.

Christian
 
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