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Yap vs. Yap: The Help

by on August 15, 2011
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At the end of “The Help,” Yappers Joe Shearer and Austin Lugar had decidedly differing opinions on the film: Joe thought it was one of the best movies of the year, if not the best, to date, and Austin regarded it along the same lines as a particularly nasty hangnail or perhaps a particularly problematic paper cut.

So Joe and Austin agreed to settle their differences in the ring — more accurately, the Film Yap’s version of the squared circle: Yap vs. Yap.

Here they debate the merits of the film, the characters, the acting and whether, y’know, it sucks or doesn’t.

Austin: This week I will be part of two Yap vs Yaps — one where I try to argue that it’s OK to dislike a Holocaust film and one where I say the heartwarming civil-rights film is one of the worst of the year. Clearly, I’m a man who does not care much about his reputation. (See also my many “Doctor Who” articles).
I went into “The Help” with no expectations. The only thing I was curious about was to see how much range Jessica Chastain possesses, since all I’ve seen her in was the tremendous “The Tree of Life.” (She did well in this!). Then something happened. I went from thinking the film was lifeless and bland to lifeless and bad. Then lifeless and terrible. The static depiction of its characters and their culture made it impossible for any message to come through organically. They took a complex situation with plenty of high stakes and made a stick figure picture with pretty colors.
Typing anymore will just snowball me into an essay-length rant. I must be gentlemanly and allow you to present your case. En garde, sir!
Joe: What an engaging, witty, smoothly paced, well-acted and fascinating film “The Help” is. It gave a spin to a well-worn genre (the period racial drama) and infused it with a life I’ve never seen before in a film of its kind. With very few minor exceptions, it didn’t take the easy way out of any situation, treated its characters like people (bringing at least a sense of empathy to the movie’s villains and allowing flaws to its heroes) and didn’t fall into the many traps films of this type often leap headlong into.


Even Bryce Dallas Howard, whose character is a wicked, terrible person, is afforded a few moments of real loyalty to her friends, and Emma Stone, who is the purehearted hero of the piece, is portrayed at times as more idealistic and caught up in fame more than simply wanting to help. (There is a wonderful moment where she realizes the gravity of what she’s doing and how it really affects the people with whom she’s involved.)

It is a female-centric film, “Steel Magnolias” meets “Driving Miss Daisy,” and it takes the best parts of those films and removes the more maudlin moments, leaving a fantastic film.  I’d go so far as to call this the best film of the year to date.

I’m curious, Austin: What do you feel this film needs to really improve?

Austin: I never really found any empathy to most of the “owners” of the maids. Chastain’s character of Celia is a different discussion, but the members of the junior league were portrayed as irredeemable people. I thought Howard did a terrible job because she never brought any humanity to the character. She was playing the character as Cruella de Vil instead of someone who grew up in this time. The film used dramatic irony in an annoying and condescending way. Sure, there were the eye-rolling jokes like, “One day they’ll discover that smoking kills!,” that I hate, but it was the attitude toward all of them as characters. 

For example, slavery is a horrible thing. It is inhumane and one of the worst aspects of human history. Yet amid that now obvious conclusion is a more complicated issue. Not every slave owner was an utterly horrible person. We have had good presidents who have owned slaves. In “The Help,”  if you hired a maid (Celia excluded), you were seen as horrendous creatures who only speak in contradictions and vile sayings.
The characterization of everyone was rather amateur. Emma Stone’s character goes through no arc. At the beginning, she thinks that the treatment of maids are bad and by the end she realizes she was right. The ones who do change do so in a laughably bad fashion. I’m looking at you, Allison Janney — a good actress who can’t rise above bad material. I never believed that she would so dramatically change her entire mindset in the matter of movie hours like she did.
I keep bringing up Celia as an exception, and it’s because I didn’t mind that character. I liked Chastain’s performance and aside from her last scene, most of her story served well toward the greater whole. But she was betrayed by lousy filmmaking as well. There is a scene when Celia is planting a flower that represents something very important to her. What she’s doing is one of the most emotional moments of the movie, yet it’s filmed like everything else: bright colors and poor cinematography. The fact that the main focal point is her gaping cleavage astounded me.
Writer-director Tate Taylor made every scene feel empty. No emotion was created aside from characters mentioning we should be feeling these emotions. The only way he knows how to portray drama was to silence the troublesome Thomas Newman score to create an awkward atmosphere — a trick that didn’t work the first time or in repeating instances. The whole movie felt like it was taking on a complicated subject matter but, in not knowing how to approach it, falling upon simplicity that hurt all that it’s trying to accomplish.
When it comes to period-piece Southern dramas, I’m sticking with “Tree of Life” as the best film of the year so far. That said, if “The Help” featured dinosaurs, I would reverse my entire opinion of the movie.
By the way, I did a quick check: I do have a heart, but I’m getting a second medical opinion.
Joe: This story is a parable, not really meant to be a wholly accurate look at the time. Of course, there were good slave owners, but I disagree that Howard was just Cruella de Vil. Early on, she was portrayed as a popular socialite who genuinely cared about social issues and had several moments of kindness and true friendship early on with Stone and some of the others. She grew into a megalomaniac when her misguided cause gained popularity, and by the time the film ended, she became almost cartoonish because that’s what people like that do. I’ll also note that Stone and Sissy Spacek’s characters were both portrayed as benevolent maid employers (of course, the stand-in phrase for “slave owners,” as the film equates being a maid in this time and place with being a slave), and Janney’s character wasn’t a completely miserable employer either. There was a definite social pressure to engage in condescending, even abusive, behavior to the maids, and this was the film’s main point.


I’ll won’t begrudge you your hatred of the cutesy jokes, but they leaned more toward endearing to me, and there were only a couple early on.

I do agree with you 100% about Allison Janney. She is terrific at times, and I saw her line coming a mile away, but that’s her persona and she’s played that role several times over.

Emma Stone’s arc had nothing to do with racism or the maids: It was about finding her place in the world and was a secondary consideration in the film. She was more the mirror of the modern day being held up to this time.

This film belonged to two people specifically, whom we haven’t even mentioned yet: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Yes, the things they faced were well-worn, but somehow they brought a freshness to the whole thing. They openly talked about their bosses behind their backs, and Davis’ role as the surrogate mother to her boss’s daughter was especially touching and brought a new element to the subject. The film didn’t fully victimize black people; it stressed that they had to take the steps to break the chains, so to speak, and called them out for displaying verbal brazenness but not taking actual action. And dammit, they were so sassy!

As for your technical concerns, I’ll just say you’re much more a stickler to the technical than I am. (Dare I use the word “snob”?) There was a certain technical roughness to this film, but it took nothing away from the experience for me. Tate Taylor (isn’t he the Office Linebacker, by the way?) isn’t an auteur, but he told the story well. Kind of like a guy who made a certain racism film a couple of decades ago. Of course, “Boyz n the Hood” is a far superior and more important film than “The Help,” but my point is that John Singleton had some rough edges in that film as well, but it took nothing away from its overall effect.

Austin: You say “snob,” I say TCOM major and occasional filmmaker. So yeah, snob.
Actually having Emma Stone be a mirror is a major thing that bugged me. It’s something I hate in period pieces when there is a character who seems like they are from the modern day. There were certain aspects to her character that I liked, which work as a cause and effect to who she became. Yet, when dealing with the culture at the time, she always felt like she was from 2011. That works to make her an audience surrogate, but that harms the film because the world doesn’t feel real.
I kept thinking about “Mad Men” during this movie because that’s a show that captures the perfect tone. I believe all of that show’s characters are in the ’60s. They all have flaws within their own characters and the cultural shocks, but I believe them. They aren’t broadcasted and don’t have someone try to teach them the errors of their ways. That’s what the audience is for. Betty Draper even has a maid and treats her poorly, but it’s done in a way that always seems genuine to the character. In “The Help,” the film felt awkward when portraying any sort of meanness. “Boyz n the Hood” may have been rough as well, but that fit with the film. It always felt genuine because it matched the characters, setting and story. “The Help” feels too polished to the point of being empty.
I wish I could jump toward the humor since the drama didn’t work for me, but I hated the humor. I’m probably more of a comedy snob than anything else because I write a lot of comedy and I focus a lot on its structure. There is one joke in this film that was foreshadowed too heavily and the payoff was lousy. This is the big joke of the movie and, again, Taylor had no idea how to film it. I was shocked anyone didn’t know the punchline before it was revealed. Yet even if they didn’t, the joke was literally repeated up to 15 times by different characters to lesser results. It started to become unbearable.
Those characters were sassy! Viola Davis is a wonderful actress who ought to have more roles than just being the wise woman of authority (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” “Trust,” “Knight and Day,” “State of Play”). I think it’s very racist of Hollywood that the only time brilliant black actors get the chance to have rich characters is in a movie about segregation of the races. There’s another argument. Back to the topic!
Davis did a lot of good things in a character that wasn’t well written. There were these small moments when she made herself seem uncomfortable that were wonderfully organic and new. Then, most of the time she had to cry a lot, which was great to see what she could do, but it didn’t pay off for the character. There’s a key monologue she delivers that falls flat because we’re watching Viola Davis, not Aibileen. She has to get off a bus at one point, and it should be an anxious and fearful moment, but instead it’s nothing. No payoff.
I never really bought Octavia Spencer’s Minny. She seemed inconsistent in how she moved through white culture, especially near the end, and I never really found her that funny. There’s an early point when she was basically yelling at Emma Stone that I thought there could have brought richness to the character. Then, again, no payoff.
To me this film is very similar to the often-mocked “Crash” and “The Blind Side.” This just has better actors in its ensemble, but not necessarily better performances.
Joe: We’ll agree to agree on the racism of Hollywood when it comes to strong roles for black people. I’ll also agree that the movie’s big joke wasn’t particularly clever. The moment they say “the Terrible Awful,” it wasn’t tough to figure out what was going on, but I’d argue it’s not supposed to be. At the risk of you hitting me, I’ll draw an analogy to Hitchcock’s old adage for creating suspense, where there’s a bomb under the table. One character knows this and so does the audience, but there is one character who does not. The suspense is in when that one character finds out, and that’s where the admittedly broad comedy worked in that scene. Given the characters, I thought it fit where a more grandiose, intricate plot would have seemed out of place. You have to remember that these are maids and housewives, not the Ocean’s 11 crew or international spies tricking each other. For the material, it was right. Perhaps it could have been done in a more witty way, but I didn’t have a problem with it, and if you like your comedy highbrow and not broad, you won’t be down with much of “The Help.”


I’ll agree also with your assessment that the acting improved the film quite a bit, though I wouldn’t call Aibilene poorly written. The acting overall was really strong, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few nominations come out of this, though the line between award-worthy acting and cliche is very fine indeed (and sometimes nonexistent, as in the case of those two movies you just mentioned).

But indeed, it was that acting, and the respective personalities of those actresses that lifted “The Help.” Look at that cast: Davis, Stone, Howard, Sissy Spacek, Janney and finds like Spencer and Chastain. (I’ll admit I only remember Spencer as being the woman who signed up Peter Parker to wrestle Randy Savage … er, Bonesaw McGraw in the first “Spider-Man” movie, and I hadn’t seen Chastain in anything.) “The Help” is definitely a chick flick, but is one of the really good ones, perhaps one of the best.