In The Help, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is a veteran housekeeper in 1963 Jackson, Miss., raising the latest of the many white children for whom she has been a surrogate mother. She's approached by Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate and aspiring writer who wants to create an anonymous collection of first-person stories about black housekeepers' experiences. When Aibileen finally agrees, she recruits her best friend, fiery Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), to the project.
Director and screenwriter Tate Taylor, adapting Kathryn Stockett's novel, struggles with pulling all of this together. He understands that Aibileen is the emotional center, and that Minny gets all the best lines, so it's not surprising that it feels as though their stories are more fully realized. But Skeeter gets somewhat lost. While Stone still brings the sharp intelligence that has made her a breakout comedic star, it's startling to see a performer so charismatic rendered fairly...boring.
Then again, perhaps she just shrinks in comparison to her two primary co-stars, who are terrific. It's easy for a role like Aibileen to become little more than silently suffering dignity, but Davis grounds the character's frustration in the genuine love she pours into the children she raises. And while any number of actors could have had a blast with as lively a character as Minny, Spencer delivers much more than wisecracks by maintaining a trembling undercurrent of hostility. Mix in strong supporting work by Jessica Chastain as Minny's flighty new employer, and there's a lot that keeps The Help from sinking into a mere collection of alternating tear-jerking and applause breaks.
But the film confronts the same basic drawback of the book: There's almost nothing about it that's genuinely thorny. That's most evident in the character of Hilly Holbrook, the town's debutante queen bee, played by Bryce Dallas Howard with a sneer of superiority that, if she were male, would generally be accompanied by mustache-twirling.
While the black characters in The Help are confronting the simple, painful realities of their world, the white world around them is rendered in cartoonish shades of villainy, parental neglect and benign ineffectuality. The ostensible reason behind both Skeeter's project and Stockett's book - the complexity of the relationships between black housekeepers and the families they serve - folds underneath the appeal to viewers congratulating themselves for agreeing that institutional racism is very, very bad.
Still, it's probably fair to say that Taylor has made the kind of movie that would satisfy both Stockett and the book's fans. He makes some smart changes in his adaptation, including a revelation about the health of Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney). And he hits his mass-appeal marks with aplomb.