Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer star in The Help.
Somewhere in the middle of the film's almost two and a half hour running time, we found ourselves wondering, "Was this an Oprah book club selection? Or does it just seem like one?"
Based on the wildly successful novel by Kathryn Stockett, "The Help" is everything the All-Mighty O loves in her summer reading; a tale of redemption over strife and woe with some female bonding and racial understanding sitting like the cherry on top.
Set in 1962 Mississippi, when Jim Crow laws were heavily enforced, the story follows aspiring writer Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone, wearing one of the worst wigs in cinematic history) as she returns home after college and forges an unexpected friendship with two African-American maids, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, while chronicling their stories in an effort to give voice to the downtrodden during the days of "separate but equal."
When the film was first announced, despite the fact that it was produced by Christopher Columbus whose track record tends to veer toward schmaltz, we thought, if it could be more "An Education" and less "The Secret Lives of Bees," it could possibly be an early Oscar contender.
Unfortunately, while "The Help" has charm, great performances and a few lump-in-your-throat moments, it gets stuck like a mastodon in the muck, its own weight pulling it down. Despite a constant gurgling of bursting bubbles, where you catch a glimpse of the better film that might be lingering under the surface, such as Jessica Chastain's turn as Celia Foote, the lovable town floozy who embraces her maid as family, or some of Davis' meatier moments, ultimately the film can't escape the clutches of writer-director Tate Taylor. His adaptation (of his best friends' book, we might add), though beautifully shot, is overly long and emotionally indulgent, the kind of movie where all the actors cry for you rather than giving the audience a chance for catharsis.
Still, Taylor fills his screen with actresses given free rein to chew scenery as they see fit, like Bryce Dallas Howard who relishes the role of queen bee bigot, and Sissy Spacek, who delivers dazzling comedic sparkle, alongside Stone, who once again proves to be one of the most reliably watchable actresses of her generation.
Alternately heartfelt and cloyingly earnest, "The Help" isn't without merits but can't escape it's greatest flaw, which is that you can see it's a movie about black people that's made by white people and the story of women told by a man. And that's not one of Oprah's favorite things.