Monday, August 22, 2011
In fairness, Taylor does try to refashion Stockett's book around the African-American characters instead of a white guilt cipher. But this idea goes no farther than letting Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid who becomes the first to tell her stories of life serving whites, narrate the movie. Soon enough, focus is back on Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college grad and sort-of feminist who, despite no clear identity before leaving for school and a blindness to current events (at least in the book), decides to get the black perspective of Jackson life. In the novel, Skeeter is almost jaw-droppingly entitled and never criticized for it. Here, Taylor dispenses with nearly all of her story, which would be a significant improvement if he also cut down her screen time to match. But no, regardless of who had to go in to record ADR, this is still Skeeter's story.
Completely unaware of the risks of such an enterprise despite living in one of the hotbeds of the Civil Rights Movement, Skeeter puts the lives of maids in jeopardy just to please a scabrous New York Jewish elite editor—no commas because Taylor/Stockett seem to use each of these terms as if they all mean the same thing—named Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen, who somehow gives the most one-note performance in a film of unambiguous heroes and villains). For some reason, Stein is never shown sitting at her desk like a professional, instead lounging on the thing dangling her legs like a naughty secretary or brashly calling from a restaurant whilst devouring adoring younger men. Mocking the ivory tower insularity of the New England elites, both Stockett and Taylor have her flippantly telling Skeeter to hurry up and get the interviews she needs for a book "before this whole civil rights thing blows over."
The rest of the archetypes are spread out among dignified, frumpy sexless (yet child-inundated) maids and shrieking housewives who put a glossed look on racism so audiences don't have to be reminded that some of their parents (or even friends) used to beat and hang people for the color of their skin. This brigade of over-hairsprayed, overacting harridans is led by Hilly Holbrook, played by a Bryce Dallas Howard with such narrowed eyes there simply must be a gag reel of her walking into furniture by mistake. One never gets any clue as to why Skeeter was ever such close friends with her or Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), a lab-grown Betty Draper cloned with amphibian DNA to fill the sequence gaps. But then, Skeeter herself is such a blank slate for the author's guilt and wish fulfillment that presumably anyone could find something to project in her.
As for the maids, Aibileen is the chief representative, but she is also joined by Minny, de-sassed from her ludicrous novel form into someone who might conceivably have lived past the age of 13 in a town where lip from a black woman could equal jail time at best. Stockett wrote the character with her actor friend Octavia Spencer in mind, and Spencer plays the role here. Her bug eyes are their own punchline, always bulging in anticipation of reprisal when she can't keep her mouth shut and regarding any and all white people with disbelief, as if unable to comprehend just how ridiculous they are. Minny is the most anachronistic element in this story, modeled after a modern, no-nonsense black woman, but now that Spencer can say the lines instead of Stockett writing in loose dialect, she nearly makes the thin comic relief of the character work. She shares some organic laughs with Aibileen that work far better than the more staged comic pieces, precisely because these smaller, more intimate moments feel like conceivable gallows humor between two people suffering through the same endless torment.
Nevertheless, Minny's neutering makes her extraneous, and the already unnecessary side-plot with her airheaded but sweet new boss, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), only more distracting. I would venture to guess that Stockett intended Celia's character to comment on how much poor whites shared with blacks in their ostracizing from the realm of "classy" whites, but her depiction as a kindhearted, racially blind piece of "white trash" is antithetical to the true, vile nature of racism among poor, which is almost always more vicious for the jealousy and resentment of being in the same financial bracket as minorities. Having said that, Chastain gives as good a performance as the two black leads with her equally limited role: virtually unrecognizable from her turn earlier this year as the embodiment of human spirit in The Tree of Life, Chastain speaks with a squeaky hiss that sounds as if the air for her words came not from her lungs but wind blowing through the empty space between her ears and out her mouth and nostrils. She couldn't be any further from her other breakout role this year, and the sheer range she's shown within releases spaced apart by mere months is, one hopes, a sign of stardom to come.
Much talk has already circulated regarding the awards potential of Davis' performance, and it's true that she makes a startling presence. Confined by Stockett's conception of Aibileen as a loving maid who seemingly exists to raise and cheer up white babies, Davis nevertheless injects steel into the character. She's no more complex a character, but Davis' fearsome visage etches pain on this glorified Mammy figure. If anything, she conveys too much strength to be taken seriously as a humble, submissive domestic: there's more fire in her face than Spencer's. When one looks into those hardened eyes, however, one can also find humor and love, and if she has to play a maid who, in one way or another, always gives of herself to a white person, at least Davis makes that role almost believable on a human level.
I mention all these actresses because there are some genuinely solid performances here. While the Stepford women of Jackson shriek and scream and hiss, depicting racism as a matter of peer pressure instead of an endemic social ill, Spencer, Davis and Chastain elevate a film that doesn't deserve them. But not even they can distract from the shortcuts and stereotypes thrown at the screen for easy identification. Skeeter's mother, an imperious yet unchallenged force in the book, is here softened by Allison Janney. Taylor condenses the gradual progression of Charlotte's illness into a single line, and I must say that "My daughter's upset my cancerous ulcers!" is my favorite non-sequitur, crass exploitation of a terminal disease since "I got the results of the test back, I definitely have breast cancer." Skeeter too finds the shortest distance to her moral awakening, openly sniping Hilly from the start and eroding any plausibility of her supposedly close friendship with Jackson's resident witch. Skeeter's arc revolves around the mystery of what happened to her loving maid Constantine, who disappeared just before the young woman returned from college, and we're meant to track her moral development through this uncooked subplot that serves only to not-really drive a wedge between mother and daughter.
Constantine is the downfall of both the novel and the film. A repository for Stockett's idealized memories of her own maid, Demetrie, Constantine appears in flashbacks that reduce the woman to an utter fabrication, Aibileen without the tangibility. My mouth actually fell open in horror at seeing Cicely Tyson, an icon, simply appear to a teenage Skeeter, so rail-thin, shriveled and toothless that she resembled less a human being with her own life and story than a savior version of Baron Samedi. Constantine exists solely for beatification, despite how little say she gets in literary or cinematic form. All she does is buck up Skeeter, which Stockett interprets as true motherly love. Hilariously, she gave an interview in which she admitted that, when she spoke to white families that used to have a maid, they remembered the workers with fondness and love. But when it came to the maids, well, let's take a look: "When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for. That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job."
The interviewer, of course, didn't press this, but the question arises: did Demetrie truly love young Kathryn, who incidentally grew up in the '70s and '80s despite people passing this book off as autobiography? I would love to know if, at any moment, Stockett remotely entertained the possibility that the maid she has placed on a pedestal for raising her, for empathizing with her, really just viewed her as a job to make oppressive wages to feed her own children. I think that she did, in some dark recess of her mind, and the result is Constantine, a icon carved out of blessed wood that Stockett uses to chase such life-altering thoughts away like a broom to a raccoon. The resolution of Constantine's fate in the novel is overwrought, but it at least cast Skeeter's mother as a more accurate face of racism than the sparkle-bright young ladies of the Junior League, revealing how nearly three decades of service and invaluable contributions could not stop a white person from acting with cold impersonality. The film, however, recasts the revelation with regret on behalf of Charlotte, and she and Skeeter suffer no fallout or profound change for it. It's just there for another tearjerker in another film that makes so many intervallic leaps between cutesy comedy and shameless manipulation it feels like a bebopification of sentimentality.
And so, the film resolves itself for maximum audience pleasure: Hilly turns into a dozen crows that scatter into the winds, Muggles and wizards learn to live in harmony, and a baby named Barack raises his tiny, large-eared head in Hawaii and coos the word "Change." Stein, who exists to be a hard-ass to Skeeter (and an inconsistent one, first aware of the risks facing maids and then expecting more than a dozen interviews later), somehow lets Skeeter's book be released with the most hysterically dumb cover I've ever seen. The baby blue cover sports only a dove as its centerpiece, halfheartedly justified as being linked to the budding hippie movement. I just found it amusing that even the goddamned object on the book cover is white.
The Help, even in its semi-ambiguous novel form, cocoons open racism as a thing of the past. It doesn't say that racism is over, per se, but it clearly wants us to admire how far we've come. But when Jackson only recently found itself the subject of another high-profile case of race violence—in this case the murder of a black man by racist teens who shouted "White power!" as they beat him and ran over him in a truck—maybe we shouldn't be so aghast at how things "used" to be. But no, we are instead treated to the running joke of Minny's revenge against Hilly, a dastardly deed involving a pie and a mounting sense of dread, not in the reveal but in the dawning realization that this work really will sink so low for a laugh. Naturally, it works as a crowd-pleaser, but it is so insipidly dumb, Stockett writing herself out of the true conclusion to it (and the release of Skeeter's book itself) with the threat of mutually assured social destruction. But do you know how that story really ends? It doesn't end with Minny in prison where she can tell the world of Hilly: it ends with her being killed and her house firebombed. Those might not even be two separate actions. It ends with Aibileen not simply fired but completely stripped of what little she has and possibly the target of violence. It ends with Skeeter mostly likely being raped for being a race traitor and definitely with her family crippled economically. These are not pleasant endings, and I do not "want" to see them, at least in the sense that I would ever like to spend an evening seeing such sights. But if you're going to make a film about '60s Jackson, you should show the truth, not what will only unsettle audiences in the safest way possible.
So what, in the end, are we left with? A movie that hinges its biggest payoff on a flight of pure revisionist fantasy designed to make modern audiences feel good about themselves, complete with emotional moments that are, in almost every occurrence, tied to a black person helping a white. Whether it is Aibileen's insulting "You is kind, you is smart" speech to little Mae Mobley, the maids agreeing to speak after Hilly crosses the line (their assent delivered with a collective "mmm-hmm" that throbs through Aibileen's house like an A/C unit switching on), and finally the dénouement of the two supposedly lead black maids stopping everything to cheerlead Skeeter getting a job. This trivialization of the '60s has been defended for its nonsensical feel-good whimsy by those who feel validated for having a cry over these prop cutouts of suffering. But those looking for a genuinely inspiring story of overcoming hardships associated with the racial serfdom that persists today—a recent Pew Research Center release showed the median net worth of a white household at 20 times that of a black family—should read this account of a conversation the daughter of a maid had with the grown-up child of the family that employed her. It's heartbreaking, enraging, unexpectedly uplifting, defiantly confrontational, and it ends with a punchline that is not only earned but truly hilarious and vindicating. In other words, it's everything The Help isn't.