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With: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O'Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Eleanor Henry, Emma Henry, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen
Written by: Tate Taylor, based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett
Directed by: Tate Taylor
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material
Running Time: 146
Date: 08/09/2011

The Help (2011)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Chicken Tenders

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I just caught up with The Help, after it earned $169 million at the American box office, and scored four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It's also the thirteenth highest grossing movie of the year, and the #1 movie of the year that's not a sequel, prequel, remake or franchise of some kind. Here are some quick thoughts.

It reminds me of a Mark Twain quote: "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." The Help is something in-between. It makes people feel as if they've really seen something, but in fact it goes down easy and painlessly.

Like so many other American, Hollywood movies, it tells a story of black culture through the eyes of white characters, and it celebrates white characters that are brave and wise enough to open up to African-Americans.

On the other hand, it does offer some meaty (not just fried chicken) roles for African-American actresses. Viola Davis even scored a Best Actress nomination, while the movie's actual star, Emma Stone, wasn't even considered. Davis is excellent here, but I wouldn't swap the whole movie for her great monologue in Doubt, for which she was also nominated.

Two actresses are competing against one another in the supporting category, and Octavia Spencer is the front-runner. Jessica Chastain was recognized with a nomination for her stellar year: aside from The Help, she was in The Debt, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, and Texas Killing Fields. Aside from being the biggest hit, The Help was also her showiest role.

But the whole cast is great, comprising some of the finest actresses working today: Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, and even Bryce Dallas Howard, who, though she's not very popular or acclaimed, is very effective in the key villainous role. (She was an equally horrible character in another movie this year, 50/50, which may convince people to be afraid of her.)

Writer/director Tate Taylor, who adapted the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, concentrates heavily on the performances, but otherwise shoots in a picture-postcard gloss, like a gooey TV movie nostalgic for simpler times. The Help rambles on nearly two and a half hours, and it feels like it could have lost some fat, or ended a good deal sooner. It's notable that, despite the movie's general acclaim and strong word-of-mouth, and constant awards buzz, Taylor's name was never mentioned as Best Director.

Some scenes feel like rather a waste of time, like Skeeter's relationship with some bland pretty boy, or her practical joke of the commodes on the lawn. But there are some effective girl-bonding moments, and some lovely food moments (though modern day nutritionists are probably choking at the amount of fat and sugar used).

Overall, The Help is a minor movie, one that perhaps reached out to a few people that otherwise might not have heard. But it's not daring enough to really stand up to multiple viewings, or the test of time. Mostly it's a movie of the moment, a flavor of the month that will probably be forgotten.

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