Aug 18, 2011

The Help

I don't know what is more offensive, the self-congratulatory wishful thinking behind this story: Skeeter, a white aspiring writer in Mississippi (Emma Stone) helps bare the truth about race relations between the black maids of Jackson and their white employers; or the dispiriting conventionality of this movie. This movie is so artless, in the crude sense of the word, so uninspired, so unimaginative, so doggedly conventional, so incompetent, that it actually makes the offensiveness of the white girl savior fantasy almost irrelevant.
This movie has the curious virtue of making one more annoyed the more one thinks about it. While watching it, one is mercifully distracted from the corny mess by some of the very game performers, who endeavor to lift it out of its own stiff, calculated phoniness. As the simplistic pap it is, (which I imagine is similar in the bestseller) it goes in easy. It just leaves a very unsatisfying taste in one's mouth.
The performances are all over the place. Among the better ones, my favorite is Sissy Spacek's, as the mother of Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) the arch-villainess of the story. Spacek is so at home in the place, she is the only person in the entire movie, with the exception of Leslie Jordan, the hilarious guy who plays a newspaper editor, that actually seems to belong in Mississippi. It's not only because her accent seems fine, (fahn), is that she is unhurried. She is laid back. She belongs to a place where time (tahm) is slow. Most everybody else seems to have driven from LA, gotten a dialect coach and played let's dress up and act like manic Delta queens. But Spacek is softly eccentric, and she does not overact. Her timing is impeccable. Jessica Chastain, on the other hand, goes all out. She plays a busty, giggly blonde with gusto. She is totally over the top, but she is excellent because there is a core of sweet, unconscious decency in her. The director, Tate Taylor, is so clueless that he chooses to leave in some of her more exaggerated reactions, but she is still very appealing. Of all the young women in the movie, she is the only one who seems to have a more dimensional character, even if it is a caricature. Allison Janney, as Skeeter's mother, is as always, funny and solid.
I really want to like Emma Stone, for she has the spark of a movie star, she is quirky in a good way, but as of yet, she has a limited bag of tricks. She plays a spunky, unconventional woman who wants to be a writer, but she seems to be the same person she is in all the movies I have seen her in (Easy A, Crazy, Stupid, Love, and this one). Skeeter is potentially an interesting character, someone who straddles conventionality and independence, which is a hard balance to master in life. Opportunities are squandered to show how she evolves emotionally to reject the culture in which she's been brought up, or how conflicted she is in not agreeing with her square friends, or how maybe a part of her would like to really belong to that clique. But she seems more driven by her desire to be a writer than by any pressing sense of injustice. This may be real, but it could be more interesting. Instead, it seems is that she is going through the motions of the plot. To be fair, none of the characters act realistically in this movie. They don't have a moment of human spontaneity, unless they're Sissy Spacek.
Only actors with a deeper sense of craft emerge unscathed from the broad strokes of corn and caricature the director heaps on the treacly story. Hence, Bryce Dallas Howard, playing Hilly, is so simply and stupidly evil, she is hard to watch. Her acting is at the level of drama club in high school. Someone with more chops could have infused something more complicated in the character, not just a caricature of ridiculous prejudice. It would have been interesting to feel sorry for a woman so benighted, so heartless, so convinced of segregation. After all, she truly believes the help is happier using their own toilets. But Howard is one step from twirling her mustache, if she had one. Reese Witherspoon would have known what to do with this role.
As for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the actresses who play the two main black characters, Abileen and Milly, they are both intensely committed. I have only seen Davis in Doubt, and she brings that same intense defiant dignity to both roles, but I happen to think she is a bit hammy. There is only so much dignified defiance one can take in an actor. Spencer has a wonderful presence, she is immensely likable, but she seems to reprise the stereotype of the folkloric, sassy black housekeeper, with as much panache as she can muster. The two actresses give it all they've got and they keep the audience awake, but they deserve better written roles.

The idea of asking "the help" about how they feel could yield a lot of extraordinary material in the hands of an insightful writer. As it is, it is nothing but sentimental pap that female audiences should know better than to accept: simplistic notions like "all the Black maids love the white children they raise" (as usual, all of them are paragons of goodness). Or, these black maids try to give better values to the white children they raise, but they end up being ungrateful racists. I think this is a bunch of hooey. These maids are too busy doing all the housework and babysitting all day long to be instilling lofty values on the kids they mind. They can be loving caretakers and the attachment to the kids is mutual, but idealizing their tough reality doesn't do them any favors. It just makes white people feel better for feeling bad about it.
I come from a country where maids are known as "the happiness of the home". I am extremely curious to know how audiences in Mexico will react to this film, because the help's situation in Mexico right now is way too similar to that of the help in Mississippi in the 60's, if you can believe it. In Mexico, many maids have maids quarters with their own bathrooms, they care for rich children and leave their own behind in their impoverished towns or villages. In Mexico, nobody sits to have lunch with the maid, unless it's the children. But reality is complicated and the justifications for prejudice and segregation are almost elegant in their compromise and denial. The wealthy are useless and need someone to do everything for them, and the poor need to eat. It is the status quo, intensely unfair, murky and codependent, and both sides abide by it in the interest of social harmony. I'm not saying this is how it should be, it's just how it is. People have been trying to unionize maids in Mexico for years. It ain't happening.
The Help at least has the good graces of not pretending that the civil rights struggle in the South was initiated solely by a curly haired white proto-lesbian and the two maids she coaxed into spilling the beans. The movie integrates the murder of Medgar Evers as a backdrop for raised consciousness on both sides. But what annoys and insults is the oversimplification. There are many moments of ridiculous triumph, in that pat Hollywood equation that if you do the right thing, you get amply rewarded. The busty woman learns to cook and makes the southern meal to end all southern meals all by herself (in one night!) and she and her husband sit Milly at the table. As if. Milly and Abileen come into their church on Sunday to, guess what, a stand up ovation (these should be banned from movies under threat of capital punishment; really, how low can you go?).  Skeeter gets rewarded by her valiant efforts with bestselling success and a job at a publishing house in New York. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King was rewarded for his efforts with a bullet in the head.
If this movie were more honest, Abileen, instead of cheering Skeeter to go look for her life in NY, would tell her to get out of Dodge and never come back to that dump, but it's all a big Hallmark card of enormous back-patting. To add insult to injury, the pathetic and ill-advised inclusion of a song by Bob Dylan has a kind of a bull in a china shop effect, but in this case it is actual art, interrupting two hours of well-meaning, queasy kitsch.

1 comment:

  1. Wait just a minute about the maid situation in Mexico. While some are abused, the majority have a far more pleasant place to work, and at better wages, than some woman working in a factory. And more domestic employers than not do provide benefits in accordance with the law. OK, maybe 40% do. I enjoyed the book, and I expect to enjoy the film as well. And I'm Mexican.