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The Help: Mainstream Crowd-Pleaser, Not Oscar Contender

The Help: Mainstream Crowd-Pleaser, Not Oscar Contender

At the Academy premiere of The Help Tuesday night, DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider, Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Ricky Strauss, and Disney’s Rich Ross presided over an industry unveiling that yielded plenty of tears and applause. The crowd was packed with Colleen Camp’s Academy list, from producers Norman Lear, Laura Bickford and Larry Gordon to rising actor Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom). The movie is a mainstream crowd pleaser. Summit’s Patrick Wachsberger is right to compare it to Driving Miss Daisy, in more ways than one, suggesting that it will perform similarly well overseas. And Ross was smart to demur when trade reporters asked him about the studio’s Oscar strategy. It’s wise to wait and see how it does.

There are three Oscar-worthy performances in the movie: the always-great lead actress/narrator Viola Davis as Aibileen (one of three narrators in the novel), and two supporting roles, Mississippi’s feisty Octavia Spencer, who inspired her friend Kathryn Stockett to write Minny, and Jessica Chastain as Miss Celia, in a standout tour-de-force that eclipses her other strong roles in The Tree of Life, The Debt, Coriolanus and Take Shelter–think Jessica Lange in her Oscar-winning Tootsie or Blue Sky. Unfortunately, the film’s mixed reviews–even if Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney and Bryce Dallas Howard also earn raves– could hurt its Oscar chances.

Look at IW’s Eric Kohn (“antiquated civil rights drama “) or the NYT’s Manohla Dargis (“big, ole slab of honey-glazed hokum”). How do you recover from that?

Well, becoming a box office hit is a start–the modestly-budgeted $25-million movie is expected to score well with women –of all races and ages–over a five-day summer weekend, more than $20 million. Dreamworks and Disney were right to release it during the summer, when women are starved for something to chew on. The Rotten Tomatoes score is a middling 72%–that’s not Oscar caliber.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie is often manipulatively effective: it makes you laugh and cry and wince and cringe as it careens hither and yon. Kerry Bardem and Paul Schnee did a brilliant job of casting, with the women at least (the men are all woeful), although I’d argue that Emma Stone, while saddled with an underwritten role and painfully lingering reaction shots, doesn’t carry off Miss Skeeter, the young writer. That’s partly because this 60s Mississippi world is fake; nothing quite rings true. One indicator is Stone’s artfully styled, contemporary ringlets. Forty-one-year-old Tate Taylor–handpicked by old pal Stockett to adapt her book and direct–is merely competent, out of his depth. Stockett may have trusted him and the savvy development team at DreamWorks, but a movie with this degree of difficulty demanded a skilled, experienced filmmaker.

Will the participants make money? Sure. But it’s not the movie it could have been.

More early reviews and a link to EW’s cover story are here.

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