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Why The Help Is the Most Successful Movie in America

Why The Help Is the Most Successful Movie in America

For this week’s “Now and Then” column, Matt Brennan veered from his planned course.

I had originally planned on writing about two brilliantly constructed, unnerving examples of the “new Romanian Cinema” — 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Police, Adjective, both of which I recommend. But last night, tired of waiting for Tropical Storm Lee to pass, I finally ventured out with a friend to see The Help (trailer below).

We are talking here about a movie that cost $25 million to make. Not a damn thing explodes. There’s nary a man in sight, except a few straw men for the ladies to knock down. It’s a period piece that feels, in certain moments, grossly oversimplified, cheaply emotional, messy, melodramatic, and overlong.

We are also talking here about a movie that has led three weekends in a row in an otherwise dismal late summer, raked in a cumulative $118.6 million domestically, and in the middle of a storm that has dumped close to 20 inches of rain, had every seat of a New Orleans theatre filled nearly a month after its release. All of which prompts the question: why?

Book club business and positive word-of-mouth are contributing factors, but you can’t lump Tate Taylor’s crowd pleaser in with Bridesmaids or Sex and the City. It has been said of all three that they “proved” women, as both stars and spectators, could carry a movie to the top of the box office. But that’s to suggest women go to the movies just because there’s a woman on screen, unable to decipher between the bawdy companionship of Bridesmaids and the weepy embrace of The Help. However much the success of The Help is due to female viewers, it’s not simply because they’re so desperate for a female protagonist that they’ll see anything. It’s because the film, whatever its flaws, is also an earnest attempt at dealing with the very problems of domesticity, friendship, love, marriage, and power (or lack thereof) that women of every stripe continue to face. For at least some in the audience, I imagine, The Help isn’t a period piece at all.

Based on my own unscientific sample — one screening at one cinema in one city — women are only part of The Help’s box office triumph. The theatre I attended in New Orleans was equally divided, by my rough head count, between men and women; the crowd skewed older than, say, Colombiana, with Zoe Saldana as a female lead, but it wasn’t ladies who lunch. What’s happening here, I think, is not unlike the rise in gold prices. When the economy’s in the tank, investors flee for the stability of gold; when the weekend’s offerings at the multiplex are prefab horror franchises and stale comedies, filmgoers flee to adult fare. Neither choice is a particularly risky one, and you may not win big, but you’re just as unlikely to lose.

A lot of ink has been spilled over The Help: arguments about its politics, femininity, historical accuracy. But the real issue, if we’re talking about its success, is not Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) deciding to write a book from the perspective of local maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) in 1960s Jackson, Miss. Because The Help may be grossly oversimplified, cheaply emotional, messy, melodramatic, and overlong. But it’s also rousing, uproarious, fiercely felt and acted within an inch of its life by some of the most talented actresses today. Nearly every one is believable, complicated, finely balanced. The cast provides an impressive display of emotional range in a part of the year when movies are usually drained of every drop. Bryce Dallas Howard, as the villainous Hilly Holbrook, pushes right up to monstrosity and then pulls back with a veil of tears — what starts off a bit too broad narrows until she’s just a woman, embittered and humiliated, unable to get what she wants. Jessica Chastain gives a brave tragicomic performance as the lonely, ditzy wife of a local heir, vacillating between bubbly and distraught.

The one that lingers longest, though, is the magnificent Viola Davis, roiling and raw. As Aibileen Clark, the first maid to agree to speak with Skeeter, she steals the movie from the opening minute. “How does it feel to take care of white children all day when your own are being looked after by someone else?” Skeeter asks. Davis conveys her near-incapacitating pain at having to respond with just the pace of her breathing and the gaze of her eye. “It feels…” she trails off. The Help, just as it’s getting underway, answers my earlier question. Why has it become so popular, despite its imperfections and the conventional wisdom that people don’t go to see things like this anymore? Because it feels. When it comes to movies, sometimes that’s all you ask.

[Photos and trailer courtesy of DreamWorks Studios and Participant Media]

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