Sunday, October 2, 2011

Let's Talk About The Help

I finally got around to seeing Tate Taylor's The Help recently. Several weeks after being released, and on the heels of it's extraordinarily successful run at the US box office, it felt quite "late in the game" to be getting around to it, but cinema isn't a one week only thing (despite what 98% of the internet may tell us) so let's just roll with it, okay? The fact that the 3pm showing on Thursday at my local Yarraville Sun Theatre was quite well-attended means there are plenty of others who haven't rushed to see it and promptly forgotten it exists.

"Why are you talking about that movie that opened three weeks ago? That is SO OLD!" etc.

Emma Stone? I'm not sure if 2011 will see a more woefully miscast lead role than Emma Stone in The Help. I'm already a big fan of Ms Stone - hilarious in The House Bunny and I thought she was Oscar-worthy in Easy A - but she is a mess here. I worry that Stone is not suited to period films; perhaps she just looks too modern? The screenplay, by Taylor based on a rather popular novel by Kathryn Stockett, certainly doesn't help, what with the way her character of "Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan" is written as being too modern that I found it entirely unbelievable that she was ever a part of this group of very 1960s southern women. Why does she want to spend time with them if she clearly thinks she's better than them? When was she ever like these racist women for them to want to be friends with her? Skeeter doesn't just appear to be a more socially enlightened as everybody else, but she appears to be from an entirely different movie altogether. The way Stone flaps about, particularly in the early scenes, is quite cringe-worthy. I wasn't particularly keen on Bryce Dallas Howard, either, (especially once her character loses any nuance and become a punch line about feces) but even she was better than Emma Stone! Quite a feat, that. Made me want to give Sandra Bullock several more Oscars, too!

The Make-Up! Stone is certainly not helped in the slightest by the botch job that is The Help's make-up team. The character of Skeeter is obviously meant to be one to whom "looks aren't important", but that doesn't mean they should have to force that diabolical wig work onto us audiences. Yikes! That curly mop with the shape of a drowned rat that she sports is terrifying. And then, of course, when they finally make her hair look all pretty she just looks like Emma Stone, Actress, and not anything even resembling a real life woman living in the 1960s Mississippi. It's like a mix between Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich and early career Nicole Kidman. Just another poorly conceived aspect to this character, but an aspect that exists in plenty of other films too - this idea that writers and artists in general have no desire to look attractive, sexy, on trend or even clean. Who knew The Help and Limitless would have so much in common?

Viola Davis? Love this woman, don't you! That expressive face is so, well, expressive! How about that final scene where emotion after emotion flows over her face? My favourite scene in the whole film was when Viola's "Aibileene" character, having spent the whole feel looking suitable bereft and morose, lights up and laughs. It's a scene that is so striking and is key in making this housemaid more than just a talking head for "the issues" that the film wants to discuss. Aibileene because an actual character with dimensions and angles, and Davis presents her wonderfully. Octavia Spencer has less of a character to work with for the majority of the run time, falling back on the "mmhmm"-ing sassy black woman tropes that these supporting roles usually do. Spencer, despite the initial iffiness of her character, does wonders with the part and really pulls it out in the latter half of the film where she gets some really meaty stuff to chew . I particularly enjoyed the developing camaraderie between Spencer and the omnipresent Jessica Chastain (whom I saw in two films in one week, what with this and Take Shelter). Again, the character arc is hardly original, but it's the actor that makes it. Take a look at Bryce Dallas Howard who has a similarly cliched role, but does far less with it. I also enjoyed Ahna O'Reilly, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, LaChanze and the near wordless Kelsey Scot. The whole ensemble is rather great, so it's such a shame that Stone and Howard really couldn't make it work.

Cosmetics! No, we're not back to talking about the horrendous make-up work (although, while we're at it, notice how none of the beautiful woman ever appear to be hot and yet all the maids sweat profusely?), but instead the overly artificial nature of some of the design. It's too cosmetic, too lacquered. The houses don't feel lived in at all (and where did the characters get all those perfectly clean porcelain toilet bowls and get them onto that woman's lawn without anybody noticing?) and the costumes - as gorgeous as they are - all have that distinctly off-putting flaw of all looking ridiculously new. One of the many wonderful things about the upcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the way the garments are so character-specific and don't just feel like the characters all shopped at the same market. The way a younger character, like the one played by Benedict Cumberbatch, wore a stylish black overcoat over a modern suit was in stark contrast to way his older superiors were still stuck in a world with swathes of brown and tweed. It was a fascinating aspect to that thoroughly engrossing film, and one thing that really bothered me about The Help. Everything is so very perfect that it feels like it negates the perfect of being a film that aims to peer behind the curtain of this era. I loved how Chastain's free spirish-ish character had delightfully cool short shorts, but other than that it just looked like costume designer Sharen Davis purchased several rolls of the same fabric. The actors were wearing underline costumes, not outfits. I don't remember anything distinct whatsoever about them, do you? Not a one stands out. Much is made early on of Skeeter getting her dress from the dry-cleaners for her big date because, as we've established, she doesn't really care to dress up, but then when she wears it it's just... a dress.

Mary J Blige? While the career of one Mary J Blige is certainly peculiar (from What's the 411 to easy listening r&b? How sad!), I did quite like her end credits song "Living Proof".

In the end, I found myself quite liking The Help despite my misgivings about several major aspects. The second half goes a long way to erasing the first half's misdeeds of silly, broad humour and finds itself with several scenes of real emotion and power. Despite a somewhat Lord of the Rings style ending-upon-ending structure that seemingly ties everything up in a perfect little bow, the actors bring genuine class and power to the material. Davis and Spencer, specifically, work it like it's going of style and I even welled up a bit. I wasn't at first, but by the fourth big confrontation the water started to form. I could have done without the references to shit, but what can you do? B- / C+


Joe K said...

I feel like The Help is the kind of movie that you like while watching it, and then never like it again. A big problem with the film for me was how broadly painted and ridiculous Bryce Dallas Howard's character became. Making her a perfect storm of villainous cliches may have been the easy route, but a more intelligent film would have given her at least some recognizable human qualities. As is, she's little more than a plot-device. I've got nothing but praise for Davis and Spencer, though. Pity the movie doesn't have nearly as much faith in them as it should have.

And incidentally, I think it's fantastic that you're continuing the discussion for previously released movies. This whole 'one-week-and-it's-over' phase that movie culture is in just drives me nuts.

TomS said...

Interesting review. I wonder if you spent time in Mississippi in the seem sure of the film's authenticity (or lack thereof).
I am glad you ultimately enjoyed the film..and you made a good point abut how so many porcelain bowls could have been found so quickly...
I actually really liked this film, and having lived in the US during the Civil Rights era, I think it accurately captured a certain mood and look at that time.