Is this the most original movie on the planet? No. Does it cover a lot of ground that's been covered before, but here in a melodramatic way? Yes. Will some people be upset by it? Probably. Is it an enjoyable way to spend a few hours? Yes.
The gentleman who sat down next to me at the screening I saw brought in a fish sandwich from Harlem (to "set the atmosphere") and prepared himself to get angry about the way racism is portrayed in the movie. Me? I was just hoping not to be bored, because while I've tried a couple of times to read this particular book, it just hasn't captured my attention in the way that it has with so many other people. I didn't get his full review when it was over, but I can say that we were both laughing repeatedly through the movie, and I might have even been a little touched by some of the more emotional exchanges at the end of the movie... and I hate all that sappy stuff. It almost made me want to give the book another shot.
Eugenia "Skeeter" (Emma Stone) is an idealistic young woman in the early '60s who has just returned to her home in Jackson, Mississippi after college, and gets a job doling out cleaning advice at a local paper. She's uncomfortably sucked back into a social circle the involves her friends Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) who have followed the more conventional path of getting married and having children, with of course the housekeeper that comes along with their status in life. Skeeter interviews Elizabeth's maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) about tips on how to clean, but decides that she'd like to write a book from the point of view of "the help" and asks for Aibileen's assistance. She pitches the book to an editor in NY (Mary Steenburgen), who eats up the idea so long as she can get a lot of women on board.
The only other maid willing to spill the beans on the horrors that she's undergone in the employ of a bitchy and pampered white women is Minny (Octavia Spencer), but even she's reluctant to put her family and self in danger, as what they are doing in writing this book (even anonymously) is basically illegal. But given that Hilly (who Minny works for) is abhorrent and has spearheaded a campaign to get those of African American descent to use a bathroom outside (even in the midst of a tornado) because they have germs and can carry diseases (or so she claims), it seems like the right time to stage a little rebellion. Aibileen's stories mostly involve raising other people's children and are intercut with footage of her taking care of Elizabeth's most adorable daughter who is unfortunately overweight (at the age of about two) and is a source of shame for Elizabeth's attempts to convey perfection. Minny gets fired after using the indoor toilet, and goes to work for the charming Cecilia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who is a bit of an outcast (as she seemingly stole Hilly's boyfriend, and got knocked up before she was married). Cecilia treats Minny as a friend, and the two develop a somewhat remarkable relationship.
But it isn't all stories about serving the upper class; we're shown so much of the daily lives of Minny (who is abused by her husband and is forced to send her daughter to work in the career she despises) and Aibileen (who lost her own child in a race-related incident). It's almost impossible not to get a little teary as Elizabeth's daughter tells her caretaker, "You're my real mama, Abi", or to be a bit horrified when you find out the circumstances under which Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney) let her own maid go after a lifetime of service. But amid all of the tragic stories, there is some downright funny stuff. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments that are deftly delivered by Janney, Spencer, Chastain and Sissy Spacek, The troubles come during scenes in particular with Howard. Her attempts at being emotional fall flat, and basically she's a caricature of a stereotypical mean girl -- complete with a pout and a stomp that is requisite for all queen bee bitches when they don't get their way. It is almost impossible to take her remotely seriously, even when she's being "evil." But a lot of the humor is at her expense, so some of it is forgivable; it's just too bad that they didn't find a stronger actress for this role to really help elevate it.
I also could have lived without most of the drama surrounding Skeeter's life. While Stone is supposed to be the star, really, she's just there to sort of liaison the actual story, so when she participates (by getting a makeover or going on awkward dates), it almost seems to slow the story down. The only exception is that the scenes between Stone and Janney are actually pretty strong, but they pale in comparison to a lot of the more emotionally resonant material in the film. I didn't dislike Stone in this role, I just didn't necessarily need to see her She's All That transformation, or her interactions with her "quirky" newspaper editor who annoyingly predicts that cigarettes will be proven to be deadly.
But enough can't be said about Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. These two women really made this movie something more than was ever imagined on the page. They embodied their characters and gave them such life. Davis' performance of Aibileen was restrained and yet so commanding, while Spencer's leaned towards the comedic, but wowed with the drama when it was called for. I could watch the way Davis just stares at a situation and absorbs it before speaking for twice the amount of time that this film ran, and I would not have been bored in the slightest. Their performances are not to be missed, and for those who loved the book, this film shouldn't disappoint at all.
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