Why The Help Remains the Most Successful Movie in America

Of course, I write about The Help and I get more response from readers than ever. This in itself says something about how it has broken the barrier from niche to mainstream — in an era when "water cooler" talk has nothing to do with an actual water cooler, and most of it takes place in narrowly defined digital spaces, The Help is being talked about across subgroups. To quickly address the two main criticisms of the piece:

1) Yes, The Help is going strong because there's so much crap out there (my reference to "prefab horror franchises and stale comedies"), but it's more than that. One of the reasons why blockbusters have become more rare is the oft-cited notion that there's too much entertainment out there for people to experience. It's a cliche, but from an anecdotal perspective of my friends and colleagues, going to the cinema is reserved for especially intriguing films, when time allows; the rest of filmgoing is done on Netflix or iTunes. So what about The Help — which, I might add, is not stylistically reliant on the big screen to work —is drawing people to the theatre itself? I think it's the amount, and power, of feeling that it evinces.

2) Just to clarify, I'm not saying that women will go see anything with a woman in it. I'm saying that the claim (about Bridesmaids, Sex and the City and now The Help) that each "proves" women can carry a movie disrespectfully implies such a view. Women are a lot smarter than that. But it's an easy way to continue to ghettoize women-centered cinema as a blip on the radar, rather than an audience (not limited to women, I might add), desperate for adult fare and rarely given any to chew on. The Help is, for all its flaws, a vital exception.  
To give you a taste, here's my piece over at Thompson on Hollywood yesterday:

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.

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