A good year for women on film, as exemplified in new releases The Eyes of My Mother, Miss Sloane, and more
Matthew Lickona 5 p.m., Dec. 9
In order to keep their families disease-free, the young white ladies of Jackson, Mississippi (c.1960) get behind a Colored bathroom bill and construct outdoor facilities so as to avoid sharing a seat with their domestics. As a result, future feminist and crusading young writer Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone) pens a tell-all blasting the lid off Southern-fried bigotry.
Viola Davis and the white ladies
The Help is well-intentioned muck aiming to send the great unwashed obvious messages about race relations. Someone call the Lifetime Channel and tell them one of their movies escaped.
Move over, Stanley Kramer, there’s a new kid in town. Working from a best-selling novel, writer/director Tate Taylor reduces all blacks to angels, whites (save Miss Skeeter) represent the devil, and the civil rights movement becomes a vehicle for potty humor (and worse).
Being the only one on the planet who didn’t bother to read the book, I suppose it’s only fitting to throw out a spoiler alert.
Just about everything -- from the pacing and structure down to the over-lit sets that reveal the seams where the flats meet -- reeks of tele-drama. This is history as seen through a TV tube. Irony-laced period dialog ("Cigarettes will kill you," "Work fast before this whole Civil Rights blows over") add easy laugh breaks, not authenticity. Even the perspiration stains on the housekeeper's crisply ironed uniforms are perfectly positioned.
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer
It’s an actor’s field day, and if performance is your raison d'etre, you won’t leave hungry. Viola Davis is remarkable, as is relative unknown Octavia Spencer. There is small role reserved for Cicely Tyson, who is to black historical figures what Chuck Heston was to the Bible. With Cicely Tyson on board, you know it's important! Even Bryce Dallas Howard, who normally doesn’t do it for me, is perfectly cast at the ‘60’s equivalent of a slave-driver.
Sadly, I am seldom in it strictly for the acting.
What fails to pass for entertainment is the dishonest ways in which the filmmakers ask us to embrace the characters. Minny Jackson (Spencer), the best cook in all Mississippi, was recently fired for using the evil Missus Hilly Holbrook’s (Howard) indoor commode. Minny decides to get even by baking Hilly a special homemade delicacy. She delivers the pie to Hilly’s house at approximately thirty-minutes into the film. Our first inclination is to think slapstick. Instead of a pie to the face, the narrative purposely delays the big reveal, Minny’s secret ingredient, for a later flashback.
I don’t care how old you are, the color of your skin, or whether or not I consider you my friend. If you move your bowels in my food, there should be a jail cell in your future. (Hilly doesn’t press charges, embarrassed to publicly admit to downing a heaping-helping of the pecan cow-pie.) The same goes for Minny’s replacement who, upon finding a ring while cleaning behind the Holbrooks’ sofa, immediately proceeds to hock it at a local pawnshop.
Do they really expect audiences to root for a common thief and someone who defecates where you eat? (To add sympathy and further cloud the issues, Minny's backstory includes spousal abuse.) Obviously so, because the packed crowd I saw it with laughed, cheered, and cried throughout. I, too, cried, but for different reasons.
The Civil Rights movement not being a big enough subject to tackle, The Help pads its 146 minute running-time with a subplot concerning Skeeter’s mom’s fear that her unattached daughter might be a lesbian. Minny later finds employment with a stereotypical dumb blonde (Jessica Chastain) who hires the cleaning woman in order to fool her husband into thinking his bride did the cooking and housework all by her lone self.
The Help makes Driving Miss Daisy look like cinéma vérité. I predict Oscar nominations all-around.
Reader Rating: No Stars