Did ‘The Help’ Work for Two Cranky Guys?
Bruce Fretts: I just returned from seeing The Help, based on the best-selling novel about society ladies and their maids in early-’60s Mississippi, and I was the only male in the theater. The question is, Bret: Can guys—much less Two Cranky Guys—enjoy this female-centric tearjerker?
Bret Watson: Bruce, I never thought I’d enjoy spending two hours with a bunch of wealthy pampered obnoxious racists. Their hair was so perfect, their dresses so colorful, their homes so majestic and neat, I felt like I’d stumbled into Martha Stewart Living: The Dark Side.
Bruce: This movie was like an Iced Tea Party rally, what with all the sweaty glasses and bridge games going on. Or maybe it’s more like a Gumbo Rally—they throw everything into the pot: not just racism, but domestic abuse, miscarriages, cancer and even the JFK assassination.
Bret: And wonderful cooking, and dress mishaps, and rebellious daughters… did they set out to make cinematic crack for women?
Bruce: If they did, they succeeded. I was surrounded by sniffling middle-aged ladies—and my nine-year-old daughter Olive and her best friend Rosa, who also loved the movie. I’ve gotta admit, I liked it, too—mostly for the performances by a remarkable cast, with one major exception. Care to guess who?
Bret: Emma Stone!
Bret: The cast is outstanding and sure to harvest a bumper crop of Oscar nominations, since this is the kind of Worthy Weepy that the Academy loves. But I can’t guess your exception. Who?
Bruce: Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the villainess of the movie, Hilly. It’s not totally her fault—the character is such a one-dimensional demon that even Emma Stone might not have been able to pull it off. But I think Bryce should follow her father Ron’s footsteps and quit acting. Let’s hope what she really wants to do is direct.
Bret: Hilly is cartoonish, but the movie seems to require a cartoonish villain. It even has one aspect of a Judd Appatow comedy: a big gag involving a fecal meal. At other times this early 1960s movie seems like a southern-fried version of Mad Men—call it Mad Maids.
Bruce: Big gag is right. There are some jarring tonal shifts from broad comedy to soap operatic melodrama, and a few subplots get lost in the shuffle, like Stone’s romance with an oil-rig worker. But the main story, about Stone writing a book telling the maids’ stories and exposing the town’s secrets in the process, is undeniably compelling. I had no idea that’s what the original book was about—judging from the title, I thought it was like The Nanny Diaries, a frivolous piece of chick-lit.
Bret: I love Chiclets. I felt oddly unsettled about liking the movie, as if I knew I’d taken a sugar pill instead of real medicine. The movie is jarring, at least at first, in setting simmering racism in a candy-colored squeaky-clean rendition of the south, like something out of Disney. I was waiting for bluebirds to help the white ladies get dressed. Meanwhile the maids trudge through this Technicolor world in solemn oppression. I felt like the movie was telling me visually, “Isn’t everything wonderful?” There’s even a newspaper editor who seems half-Munchkin.
Bruce: He’s not the only underdeveloped male character, but it doesn’t matter because there are so many terrific actresses in this movie, from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the two lead maids to Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek as older ladies with maladies and even Cicely Tyson (Miss Jane Pittman!) as the aged woman who raised Stone. The Oscars are going to run out of nominations for this bunch. And we haven’t even mentioned my favorite. Care to guess?
Bret: Emma Stone!
Bruce: No, I’ve found a new love: Jessica Chastain, who plays the eccentric Celia. She’s hardly recognizable as the ethereal mother from The Tree of Life. I also saw her in a wildly uneven indie movie that barely got released, Jolene, but she’s fantastic in that, too. She steals her every scene in The Help. And she gained 15 pounds to play the part. For a Hollywood actress, that’s a zaftig profile in courage. Did you recognize Chastain from The Tree of Life? And by the way, which son died in that movie? (I’m adding that so we’ll keep getting Google hits on our ToL review.)
Bret: All I remember is that I died during The Tree of Life. And I went to heaven, where they were showing a Buster Keaton marathon. As a man in the journalism biz, how’d you like Mary Steenburgen as a big-shot New York editor who clearly has lots of spunk because she sits on her desk with her legs crossed and dangling over the front while she sips a cocktail and makes phone calls? I’m sure there were lots of powerful women like that in the media back in the early ’60s. Do you sit on your desk that way? And what are you wearing?
Bruce: I hate spunk! Steenburgen literally phoned in her performance. That’s not a criticism—every single one of her scenes, she’s on the phone in NYC with Stone in Mississippi. What do you make of the critics who say this movie is racist because it depicts a white woman saving a bunch of African-American maids?
Bret: They are giving too much credit to the role of the white author here. Back then, a book of recollections by black maids would not have been published otherwise. If you want to level a touch criticism against the movie, accuse it of soft-peddling the reality of racism in the deep South. Yes, you hear about the murder of Medgar Evers in passing, but what you actually see dramatized is no more serious than maids getting fired for using a toilet or having a daughter who barges in during a meal. This movie almost aspires to be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Jim Crow era, but it doesn’t have Harriet Beecher Stowe’s nerve or courage. Instead of Uncle Tom ennobled as a Christ figure, we have a maid who’s ennobled as a blessed mother. The worst thing you can do in this movie is be a bad mother. Anyway, to take issue with the fact that the maids needed a white gal to get published by a New York publisher is a dumb criticism. Who said that? Let’s go punch him.
Bruce: It might have been our old EW colleague Joe Neumaier in the NY Daily News—he’s always worth punching in any case. I do think there’s a weird kind of nostalgia in movies like this one and Driving Miss Daisy, harkening back to an earlier time when the issues were more black and white (pun intended). Of course, it’s wrong that the maids had to use separate bathrooms. It’s harder to do a movie about contemporary race relations when the prejudice and discrimination are much subtler. But that doesn’t make this movie racist.
Bret: I say this movie is racist because it only depicts African-American women as maids! Why can’t they be doctors and lawyers? See, I can play the racist card too. Now I’ll play the sexist card: Would you recommend this movie to men? The women who packed the theater I was in loved it.
Bruce: Maybe I’m going soft in the head from the summer heat, or my standards have been lowered by the almost uninterrupted barrage of cinematic crap we’ve sat through this year, but yes, I’d recommend it to men and women and even children, if they’re as sophisticated as Olive and Rosa. How about you?
Bret: I’d definitely recommend it to Olive and Rosa.
Bruce: Geez, what a Crank. You need Help.
Bret: I need A Little Help? Saw that already.
Bruce: We’re two of the few who did see that underrated movie. Maybe people will get confused and stumble into that one thinking it’s The Help. One can only hope.
Bret: We should compile our stories of how editors have abused us and call it The Helpless.
Bruce: Or stories of our dating lives and call it The Hopeless.
Bret: Or They Need Help.
Bruce: You’ve heard of The Young and the Restless? Meet The Old and the Hapless. You’re old, and I’m hapless.
Did The Help do the job for you? Post a comment, and Two Cranky Guys will respond!