Seldom have so many tears been shed in the service of such an
emotionally inert ersatz entertainment. If this movie had a theme
song, it'd be “One Note Samba” for its two-dimensional cardboard
characters tilling the same patch of thin soil over and over for
almost two-and-a-half hours like the longest high school civics lesson
you ever sat through. Villains without nuance, saintly blacks with
hardly a human flaw, and a heroine who functions as a plot device:
like CRASH, this is a Hollywood “issues” movie (bound, no doubt, for a
Best Picture nomination) that talks over its characters to the
audience, allowing us to feel superior without doing any of the work
toward genuine understanding. From this ham-handed approach, we
“learn”, for example, that (all) whites were not just racist, but bad
parents, bad spouses and bad friends. Bryce Dallas Howard chews on her
part impressively, but the resulting waspishness and that of her
circle makes STEEL MAGNOLIAS look subtle. Long-suffering Viola Davis
does the Noble Black Woman schtick admirably, but it becomes a drag
long before the ending. Or I should say endings: this thing wraps up
so many times, it's as though it contains its own sequels. Not to
mention the easy resolutions: Having trouble persuading black folk to
speak frankly? Just ask a second time. Got cancer? Remission is just a
few screenplay pages away. Some ten years ago, Tony Kushner wrote a
musical drama about largely the same subject matter, called “Caroline,
or Change”. It showed what can be done to make this rich vein of
material fresh and insightful. That approach might have given this
movie the Help it needed. — Jeff Schultz

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