Hollywood outdoes itself on superb 'Help'

Thursday, August 25, 2011 - 08:27
In this film publicity image released by Disney, from left, Ahna OíReilly, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anna Camp are shown in a scene from “The Help.”

A class act such as “The Help” is rare enough in Hollywood. Coming at the tail end of summer blockbuster season, it’s almost unheard of.

“The Help” is the sort of film that studios typically save for the holiday prestige season in November or December, when Academy Awards voters start thinking ahead to the films they want to anoint.

Come awards time, many of them likely will be thinking of “The Help,” whose remarkable ensemble of women offers enough great performances to practically fill the actress categories at the Oscars.

From its roots as a collaboration between lifelong friends Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the best-selling novel, and Tate Taylor, the film’s writer-director, through the pitch-perfect casting of Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and their co-stars, “The Help” simply seems to be blessed.

It’s hard to imagine a better movie coming out of the screen adaptation of Stockett’s tale of friendship and common cause among black maids and an aspiring white writer in Jackson, Miss., in 1963.

The film maybe is a bit longer than it needs to be, but that’s quibbling. There’s not a moment of it that isn’t worth watching, and fans of the novel will be thrilled that so much of it made it onto the screen.

This is popular big-screen entertainment at its best. Provocative without turning preachy, tender without tumbling into sentimentality, “The Help” is above all enormously enjoyable.

That’s thanks to the rich characters Stockett created, to the marvelous empathy among the actresses portraying them, and to the previously untested talent of filmmaker Taylor. He and Stockett grew up in Jackson, met in preschool at age 5 and have been friends ever since (another longtime friend from Jackson, Brunson Green, is one of the producers).

They grew up in Jackson a decade or so after the novel’s events, but the deep sense of time and place Stockett presented on the page is preserved in the film. Taylor combines grandly detailed sets, costumes and hairdos with well-chosen music and a keen understanding of Deep South mindsets to create an authentic time capsule of an intransigent way of life eroding amid the civil-rights movement.

The characters don’t fully realize the impact of the changes swirling around them, allowing viewers with half a century’s cultural hindsight to live the events through these women’s eyes in a fresh and even profound way.

With frizzy hair, formless, unpolished fashion sense, and an earnestness that feels born out of decency and large-mindedness, Stone is ideal as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the Ole Miss graduate who comes home to Jackson dreaming of a writing career in New York.

Advised by a Manhattan publisher to try something daring, Skeeter convinces Aibileen Clark (Davis) to share stories of her life as a black maid cleaning up after white people and raising their children.

Soon Aibileen’s friend, the outspoken Minny (Spencer), is confiding her experiences to Skeeter. As racial tension and violence erupts throughout the South, more maids step forward to join the writing circle and tell of the hardships, humiliations and occasional subversive triumphs they have experienced under their white employers.

Stone, Davis and Spencer forge something quite beautiful, a sense of sisterhood and equality that unfolds with ease and grace, never feeling forced or untrue to their era and circumstances.

Davis, a past Oscar nominee for “Doubt,” gives a master class in quiet fortitude, Aibileen’s pain, anger and compassion visible in every subtle glimpse from her eyes. Stone, the female lead in next summer’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” continues to show why she’s one of the best young performers in Hollywood; intelligence, energy and charm just pour out of her as Skeeter.

Spencer’s the great breakout here, another example of the movie gods smiling on “The Help.” A former roommate of Taylor, Spencer also became friends with Stockett, who used some of the actress’ traits as a model for Minny while writing the book. The sass and biting comedy Spencer infuses in Minny is a constant delight.

As Skeeter’s old pal Hilly, the town’s autocrat of racial propriety, Bryce Dallas Howard is truly scary, playing against her usual sweet type. Howard’s Hilly and some of her squealing, cloying cronies at times seem like caricatures of ‘60s young wives and mothers. Yet Howard really goes for it, reveling in her character’s self-righteousness and “separate but equal” cruelty.

The cast is superbly filled out by Allison Janney as Skeeter’s ailing, conflicted mother; Jessica Chastain as Minny’s lonely, needy new boss; Cicely Tyson as Skeeter’s beloved maid; Ahna O’Reilly as Aibileen’s employer; and Sissy Spacek in a small, scene-stealing role as Hilly’s mother.

There are some menfolk in “The Help,” too, led by Chris Lowell as Skeeter’s suitor. But this is a grand Hollywood rarity that’s all about women.

If there’s a male star here, it’s filmmaker Taylor. Before “The Help,” Taylor was an actor-director with a handful of on-screen credits and a directing resume of only one short film and one low-budget indie feature.

The idea that Taylor would have a chance to write and direct a property as hot as “The Help” was absurd. Yet without him, the book might never have been published. Stockett’s manuscript had been rejected by publishers more than 60 times, and she was ready to quit, but Taylor urged her on, saying the story was too good to abandon.

Taylor had secured the film rights and began writing the screenplay before the novel came out. Filmmaker Chris Columbus, who signed on as a producer, landed it at Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures, with Taylor directing, despite his inexperience.

Even considering Columbus directed the first two “Harry Potter” movies and made a string of other hits, producing “The Help” may be the best thing he ever did for Hollywood. It’s a far better film than anything Columbus has worked on before.

And it’s a far better film than Hollywood normally churns out this time of year, one that deserves to linger well into awards season.

“The Help,” a DreamWorks release distributed by Disney, is rated PG-13 for thematic material. Running time: 146 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

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