Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tate Taylor: Helpless in the Heartland (The Help)

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, The Help, Dreamworks Pictures, 2011.

Kathryn Stockett's "sensational" best-selling novel has been transfused to the big screen with all the subtlety and intelligence of a hillbilly hammer blow to the head. The Civil Rights movement and the lives it affected is a monumental period in American history deserving of far more honor than this glossy tripe can muster.

A soapy Lifetime-lite "chick" lit flick, The Help has too many cringe-inducing moments that ring false than one can count. Director Tate Taylor dumps a twitching celluloid corpse into theatres, albeit one which drew forth polarizing emotions within me. I wanted to like the film, it's honorable intentions and the time period it depicts. And yet I found myself precariously balanced between astonishment and loathing at the condescending tones, history lite lessons and attempted alleviation of white guilt over America's bloody upbringing. To make matters worse, there is no style to speak of, just glossy flatness.

There is something bizarre about a film so mediocre and yet bristling with so many gifted actors doing their thing. I was definitely never bored. Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard are both excellent as opposing sides of the Southern-redhead fence, both breathe life into patently false characters. Seasoned pros Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen and Allison Janney are all superb in their own unique ways with the minor character parts they are designated. Jessica Chastain is effervescent and more believable than the two leads as an actual person.

The heart of this mostly heartless film is the mesmerizing turns of both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who ignite the fire and life into their manifestations of two opposing sides of the Southern-black mammy fence. They accord their characters a dignity and pathos otherwise absent from the entire affair. Thomas Newman's score is alternately jangly and melancholic, imbuing the sad affair with a spirit it does not deserve. In the end, these sublime actresses are helpless, stranded in a nauseatingly Hollywoodized heartland that never existed.

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