With its focus group-tested quotient of laughs and tears targeted to lowest-common-denominator audiences, writer-director Tate Taylor’s vulgar The Help is as much a piece of assembly-line hackwork as any Transformers sequel. This might come as a surprise to anyone sucked in by the film’s noble morals. Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, the movie is about a neophyte muckraker (Emma Stone) in Jim Crow-era Jackson, Miss., who breaks a number of absurd racial-separation laws to tell the story of “the help” – the derogatory term for all the Hattie McDaniels cleaning houses and raising children while the contemptible white mothers flit away their days at bridge games and society gatherings.
Stone’s character, hot even when she isn’t supposed to be, is a period anachronism, looking like a young Kate Hudson and acting so 21st-century alongside so many backward racists. The other white characters – especially the cartoonish bigot Hilly Holbrook (a thankless Bryce Dallas Howard) – are hardly flesh-and-blood people so much as insects under an anthropological microscope of hindsight. (“Look how ridiculous we used to be!”)
The film’s house slaves, meanwhile – played by Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and others – rotate between the helplessly tragic women they really were and the wisdom-dispensing vessels the movies have told us they were.
I suppose it’s possible to still be “with” this movie – or at least attuned to its social-progress wavelength – throughout its first half, but everything falls apart in its egregious second. At a galling 137 minutes, The Help is a shapeless mass of manipulation, seesawing between tear-jerking melodrama and trashy fecal humor out of the Jerry Springer Show playbook. At a certain point, every scene becomes an exercise in crass, shameless exploitation, shedding whatever iota of reality-based fiction carried the early scenes. There’s a good reason The Help isn’t “based on a true story”: because it’s bullshit.