Why, oh why, do I hate The Help? I mean, it’s clearly such a benevolent, well-intentioned movie. It just wants to remind people about the evils of racism in a fun, entertaining way. How can I hate a movie that’s against racism? Do I not want to have fun and be entertained? What’s wrong with me?
Well, barring the possibility that I’m actually a racist killjoy, here’s why The Help pissed me off so much:
- It’s so fundamentally dishonest! It softens and flattens out real-world history to better suit its resolutely simple-minded ends. According to The Help’s cartoonish worldview, Jackson in the early ’60s was the perfect place to play wacky, low-stakes pranks. Racism was kept in place by a handful of bitchy housewives, and it could be overcome with some spunk and elbow grease. (You go, Skeeter!) Yes, the movie does feature the assassination of Medgar Evers and the arrest of one of the maids. But these are mere footnotes to the film’s anachronistic hijinks.
- It’s so blaaaaah. I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie this aesthetically indifferent. It’s a mushy blob of sunlight, pastels, period-specific hairstyles, with a generic score that telegraphs every single (clichéd as hell) emotional beat. Each aspect of The Help’s production has been calculated to cozily, inoffensively wash over the viewer. I’m shocked it doesn’t have an unseen narrator to murmur, “Here comes the dramatic part!” and “It’s time for a slapstick interlude.” (I’m also shocked that I can speak in anything but baby talk after being anesthetized by The Help.)
- It has absolutely no tonal modulation. It’s either all laughs or all drama, veering wildly between those two registers for all 2 1/2 hours. Its latter half leans more heavily toward the dramatic, which entails lots of hushed confrontations and Oscar clip moments, but it still has room for a few entirely giggly departures, most notably the “eat my shit” scene. It’s as if writer/director Tate Taylor sees seriousness and comedy as oil and water, and never the twain shall meet.
- Its storytelling is utterly half-assed. Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help is a pretty hefty book, bulging with subplots, which makes the adaptation process tricky. The wrong solution, however, is to lazily import fragments of various storylines. Two examples stand out as especially egregious: first, the arrest of the villainous Hilly’s maid Yule Mae. It’s a jarring twist, but then… nothing. No follow-up. We see Yule Mae in prison for a few seconds, laughing as she reads Skeeter’s book, and get a casual mention of her toward the end. That’s it! In the end, Yule Mae’s nothing but a plot device—a human MacGuffin who gives the movie some extra momentum.
- The other example is Skeeter’s on-off relationship with her beau Stuart. At first she turns him down, then she dates him, then he berates her, then they break up. It’s a shaggy dog subplot. Doesn’t further the story, doesn’t teach us more about Skeeter, does nothing but awkwardly shoehorn in a tepid romance. It would help, of course, if Stuart had any traits beyond “is vaguely racist,” or if he and Skeeter had any chemistry at all.
- Most frustratingly of all, the film has three great performances that get dragged down into its bland shit. Viola Davis as Aibileen is The Help’s Atlas, holding up the heavens; she’s a reservoir of strength, resilient despite a lifetime of grievances. She’s pissed off and fatigued, but keeps it all bottled up for the sake of her life and livelihood. Davis brings the anger but masks it. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain can’t match the weight of her performance, but they establish a strong comic rapport—Chastain as a childlike redneck housewife and Spencer as her maid, who cuts through everyone’s bullshit. The fact that these three are stranded in this shitty movie is a great injustice.
So that, more or less, is why I hate The Help. It sucks! It oversimplifies the Civil Rights era at every opportunity! It wastes an enviable cast! It’s a pain to watch! Hell, the most positive blurb I can offer is “It’s somewhat better than The Blind Side.”