Monday, September 26, 2011
The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) -- C
It wouldn't be a shock, whatsoever, to see The Help win the Oscar for Best Picture come next February. It has all of the necessary ingredients; a tailor-made script for bi-partisan appreciation that caters to both die-head social liberals and down-south, false consciousness conservatives through its placating demeanor, an "issue" film without any tangible issue, given the one-dimensional approach to racism, empathy, and resolve. It feigns provocative moments and interests in a so-called post-racial climate (the white folks who made the film no doubt see this as their major allegorical aim), yet loses any sort of progressive or forward-thinking points by the very nature of its existence, re-aligning the faux-historical narrative to provide a white lead - spunky, unbiased, fair-to-all do-gooder Skeeter (Emma Stone), whose persistence against the downright evil behavior of Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) in 1960's Mississippi leads to the publication of the eponymous book, which contains anecdotes and testimonies of nearly two dozen black maids, among them the outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen (Viola Davis), the latter of whom provides the film a superficial voice-over, essentially serving as a soothing bookend rather than engendering caustic insight. Director Tate Taylor's primary foul-up is that he reduces an unspeakable pain, a tumultuous social milieu, brought on by repressed feelings and unspoken fears, to a three-act structure of melodramatic inertia, situating revelations of disgust, anguish, and, eventually triumph, as merely exploitable moments that will look pretty impressive on Oscar night (Davis and Spencer are locks for nominations and have excellent chances to win), but immediately sink the film as a serious work of art. There's a compelling subplot involving ostracized housewife Celia's (Jessica Chastain) relationship with Minny that, at its best moments, suggests the sort of feminine camaraderie located by Douglas Sirk in his 1959 masterpiece Imitation of Life, but, problem is, Taylor squanders that potential by aligning the two as kindred spirits of inequality, a problematic proposition at best, made even more sour by the film's "you are a Godless woman!" finale, abandoning any degree of subtlety to chastise a character whom, at this point, has surpassed even Cruella De Vil levels of inhuamnity, something the film expects to elicit cheers (and likely has amongst undiscriminating viewers), but only reinforces just how simplistically The Help views racial discrimination and potential avenues for progress and equality.