Sunday, February 26, 2012

Netflix Queue Challenge: The Help

I tend not to give much of a shit about the Oscars, etc., not because I have anything against award shows but because I usually haven't seen the majority of nominated movies. That's partly because I don't go to the movies all that much and have an impossible Netflix queue and a full DVR, but it's partly because I'm frequently not that interested in the sorts of movies that get the most nominations. And, as I've written about here before, I often react badly to hype. I like the idea of an Oscar Death Race; I think it's a cool project and a good way to give structure to movie fandom, but the fact is that even if I had time I have no interest in seeing Tree of Life or Iron Lady and no amount of awards is going to change that.

Which is a really roundabout way of saying I can't believe I've actually seen two of this year's big nominees before the Oscars.

What's even weirder is that they're both movies I didn't actually think I would like, but was interested in anyway. That's the sort of thing that could easily sit at the bottom of my Netflix queue for years, but I wanted to see The Artist in the theater (Hugo too, which I also don't expect to like, but I haven't gotten to that one yet). And one day shortly after the DVD release of The Help it seemed like every one of my Facebook friends was talking about it so I was inspired to move it up in my queue.

I'm not sure why I even wanted to see it, since I expected an Oscar-baity, schmaltzy, kinda racist movie with terrible exaggerated accents and stereotypical characters. And it was exactly that. But also, somehow, entirely delightful. The performances completely won me over. Is Hilly a ridiculous character? Yes. But I could watch Bryce Dallas Howard play her all day. My predisposition to adoring Allison Janney meant that I didn't really care what she did, I just wanted her to have more screen time. She had some of the most ridiculous lines in the movie but managed to make them all work. Jessica Chastain (for all the movies she's been in this year, this was the first one I'd ever seen her in…though according to IMDB she was on two TV shows I watched a while back), Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Viola Davis are all just as good as "everyone" says they are, especially given how much they're doing to make pretty thinly drawn characters feel real. They bring their real life charisma to their roles in a way that helps you understand why these people are drawn to each other beyond professional obligation, which the script doesn't entirely provide for them. And Sissy Spacek simply steals every scene she's in, like a southern Maggie Smith.

My biggest criticism is that for all the talk of danger and consequences, the stakes felt awfully low. In part because we know things got better...but not that much better, really. The movie seems to want to use our knowledge of the future, Mad Men style, to let us shake our heads and be glad that this isn't the way the world works anymore. But that's not entirely true, and it makes the whole thing feel a little pat, and a little privileged. I was very aware that I was a white person (and an urban yankee at that) watching a multi-million dollar movie made by other white people about solving racism. The happy ending felt unearned, especially since (as is so often the case) it wasn't really the end of anything. Not that the movie should have been any longer, nor would I want a sequel, but we really don't know what happens to these people down the road, and there's a high chance that the answer is nothing good. To get me to care about them and then lie to me about how it turns out seems a little unfair.

But, like many others I found The Help unhateable. And it's a great movie to watch at home. It's painted in such broad strokes, it's sort of perfect for background viewing on a lazy weekend afternoon. I look forward to it becoming a TNT staple.


mcm said...

I had a somewhat similar reaction to The Help:

Heidi R. said...

I haven't seen a movie in the theatre all year which is kind of weird but it was all me and my ex could stand to do together so we went to the movies something like twice a week. I think being divorced just made me pursue all those things I was really thinking about while I was watching Angelina Jolie get skinnier and skinnier. But I digress.

I rented The Help awhile back after months of saying I would not, and categorically refusing to read the book. I, too, liked it. I think the idea that someone could give us (our inner toddler) the self-love and confidence we'll need; the emotional weapons to battle against casual dislike, misunderstanding, even deliberate cruelty - I found that possibility appealing. Like, even if I didn't get it, someone out there did. And they got it from someone who's only interest was to see that you were the best person you could be. Nothing more, nothing less.