The Help: Mainstream Crowd-Pleaser, Not Oscar Contender

by Anne Thompson
August 10, 2011 12:06 PM
10 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
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.

Thompson on Hollywood
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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10 Comments

  • Patricia Melech | August 21, 2011 9:43 AMReply

    "This 60's Mississippi is fake" ??? Really? Anne Thompson did not grow up in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960's but I did, and I can assure you that the movie was very accurate. Ms. Thompson makes this brash statement but follows it with only that Skeeter's hairstyle was inaccurate. Did she not get the point that Skeeter was different from other young women in many ways, including by rebelling against straightening her curls? But when her mother finally did straighten her hair, the style was right from my yearbook! Other than hair, what other issues does Ms. Thompson have with the depiction? The tone was perfect! It accurately depicted the contradictory day-to-day relationships between blacks and whites of the time.....the love/hate, trust/fear, respect/disrespect. What exactly does Ms. Thompson think life was like on an average day in 1960's Jackson? Did she glean her opinion from newscasts of the most violent days and Hollywood's stereotypical depiction of Southerners? This is exactly why Kathryn Stockett chose a fellow Jacksonian to adapt and direct.....because she knew he WOULD get it right. Ms. Thompson was obviously disappointed that the movie did not depict her ill-conceived, uneducated opinion of 1960's Mississippi. Apparently, though, the public doesn't care what she thinks because the movie achieved a rare accomplishment by going from #2 to #1 in its second week, an attestant to the fact moviegoers care more about their friends' opinions than critics' and don't refuse to see a movie because of a misconceived notion that a HAIRDO is "fake".

  • Anne Thompson | August 16, 2011 4:00 AMReply

    Good actors improve weak material ALL THE TIME--despite bad direction! But as I wrote in a piece today, I maintain that at year’s end The Help (73% on Rotten Tomatoes) will NOT be on most critics’ ten-best lists; it might wind up with acting nominations. Director Tate Taylor is a gifted actors’ director and I look forward to what he does next. But the directors, cinematographers, writers, editors, art directors, costume designers, composers, and makeup artists will not be nominating this film at awards time.

  • probablypass | August 14, 2011 10:54 AMReply

    I haven't seen the film yet and probably won't. When I saw the preview on TV I knew it was a fakery, too, because of Ms Stone's ringlets. The fact that a big budget film can't get the hairdos right is the death knell. I've seen better period hair off-bway and in regional fare.

  • Catie Thomas | August 14, 2011 2:11 AMReply

    Quote from Anne Thompson... "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."

    Okay, so when does a film achieve three, maybe four Oscar nominated performances that weren't DIRECTED by the director?! And let's not even start talking Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay... yet. Is that not part of a director's job, to direct actors, do they bring it all themselves? A really unfair catty swipe that bears no credibility, and seeing this was the director's second film, you're shooting from the hip here. Usually you have much more compassion and understanding of what it takes to get a film up there. Is this INDIEwire or The New York Times? Sorry, but you deserve to be called out on that one.

  • JB | August 13, 2011 4:23 AMReply

    Seriously? Fake Mississippi? Mississippi is a far cry from what it was, having made more strides toward reconciliation than other parts of the country. I know because I live in Jackson, MS and I have traveled extensively across this country and the globe and I am very proud of how far we have come. I have never experienced more racist attitudes than in the Northeast and in Michigan. This story is more about a commonality that many of us share-being "raised" by our housekeepers (not nannies or maids) purely out of necessity because many of our parents were working to support us. We have a special bond with these women that continues today. I know it's hard for many to believe, but Mississippi is not the place that you think you know.

  • mary | August 11, 2011 10:02 AMReply

    Avel

    That is definitely a small review from Anne. At least in that article, she wrote that THE BLIND SIDE is "unpretentious, naturalistic filmmaking at its best and Bullock shines. ''

  • Punch Drunk Fool | August 11, 2011 8:56 AMReply

    I don't know why people hate The Curious Case of Benjamin Button so much. I thought it was pretty solid, but apparently I might be the only one. I didn't think it was Oscar-winning material but it deserved that nomination. I like the movie so... yeah (: haha

  • Avel | August 11, 2011 7:36 AMReply

    How does this even qualify as a review?

  • mary | August 11, 2011 4:17 AMReply

    Bill

    "The Curious case of Benjamin Button" indeed got many Oscar nominations, including Best Pictures. So Anne was right.

    "The Blind Side" had 73% Rotten Tomatoes when the film opened (now it has 66%). While Anne did say that Sandra Bullock wouldn't be an Oscar contender, Anne gave better review to "The Blind Side" than "The Help"
    http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/2009/11/27/must-sees_red_cliff_bad_lieutenant_the_blind_side/

    By the way, "The Blind Side" got Best Pictures nomination when the 10 Best Picture nominees rule was still in effect. But now, the rule is changed.

  • Bill | August 11, 2011 3:16 AMReply

    Gee. Aren't you same Ann Thompson that all but handed the Oscar to David Fincher two years back for his seriously flawed, half baked film The Curious case of Benjamin Button?

    I don't know if The Help can win the Oscar. But it will be in the discussion. The Blind Side came out of nowhere to get a Best Pic nom and a statue for Sandra Bullock two years back and it had a 40% Rotten Tomatoes. BTW - When did that half baked site get such power with people like you anyway. They give a rotten to some people who gave a film 2.5 out of 4 and others they make up just from the prose. Plus it's over loaded with reviews from BS fanboy sites that no one takes seriously.

    Anyway. Glad you couched your opinions with a lot of caveats. Doesn't sound like you're really sure about this article. But you went ahead and wrote it anyway.

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