‘The Help’ isn't quite the real thing 

The comedic drama “The Help” dips into the momentously changing times of Civil Rights Movement-era Mississippi, with due spotlight cast on the experiences of African-American maids.

Adapted by filmmaker Tate Taylor from Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller, this is a frustrating movie — at times an affecting story of liberation, but too often a contrived Hollywood soap opera. Phony minidramas yank on your tear-jerk and laughter mechanisms when you want its splendid cast to stir you deep down.

The story transpires in Jackson, in the early 1960s — days of cigarettes, Chubby Checker, beehive hair and Jim Crow laws.

Fresh-out-of-college budding writer Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home with career aspirations and anti-segregation views that worry her old-school mother (Allison Janney) and ruffle the sensibilities of her society-circle friends.

The latter include Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), queen bee and mean-spirited racist. Skeeter decides to write a book about the town’s black housekeepers, featuring personal stories shared by these women who clean white houses and raise white people’s children but are treated like second-class human beings.

It’s a dangerous project, and initially only one maid — the quietly brave Aibileen (Viola Davis) — comes aboard. Then feisty pie-baking Minny (Octavia Spencer) joins her. As their writing progresses, the three form a meaningful bond.

Taylor, a friend of Stockett’s who grew up in Mississippi, was Stockett’s choice to direct the film, and he indeed brings location-specific richness to the picture.

The film is also noteworthy when the maids share details about everyday as well as big-issue racism. (If you’re serving white people, taste the food with a different spoon, Minny advises.)

Unfortunately, for every sparkling moment, a contrived one exists, and the movie frequently exemplifies the mentality that for a human drama to be commercially viable it must be big, broad and sentimental.

As with “The Secret Life of Bees,” shallow minidrama — in this case comeuppance schemes targeting the one-dimensionally villainous Hilly — upstage potentially compelling material.

Skeeter, though Stone fares fine, is impossibly saintly. The phoniness of the ladies who lunch, a subject Todd Haynes depicted splendidly in “Far From Heaven,” comes across tediously.

All of which is a particular shame because the cast, with the exception of Howard, who can’t make the ridiculous Hilly believable or entertaining, is exceptional.

The standout is Davis, whose Aibileen is a beautifully textured portrait of pain, dignity, anger and humor.

Spencer’s Minny is a terrific comic character whether she’s spilling out her personal story to Stone’s nascent journalist or extolling the qualities of Crisco to her cooking-challenged new employer, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain).

Cicely Tyson, playing Skeeter’s mysteriously missing family maid, and Sissy Spacek, as Hilly’s scene-stealing mother, deserve more screen time.

 

MOVIE REVIEW

The Help ??½

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard
Written and directed by Tate Taylor
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours 17 minutes

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Anita Katz

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