'The Help's' cast, especially Viola Davis, wins over the critics
"The Help" comes to the screen with high expectations from the multitude of fans of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel. Luckily, with the help of a cast led by Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, the critics seem to have been won over.
The Times' Betsy Sharkey says the film's heart remains light, even when dealing with potentially tricky material like the segregated South of the 1960s. In fact, it may be too light. She does complain that "the movie exists within an emotionally charged landscape sometimes too starkly black and white -- there is no room for ambiguity at this table." But she does have kind words for director Tate Taylor and his way with the cast: "His strength, as it was in his debut, is in fully mining the comic talents of his actors to help the drama go down; he's less sure-footed in handling the big themes."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis has serious praise for just one actor in the ensemble cast, Viola Davis as the maid Aibileen, but doesn't see it as enough to save the entire movie. She writes, "Ms. Davis keeps her cool even as she warms your heart and does her job, often beautifully. She doesn't just turn Aibileen, something of a blur in the novel, into a fully dimensional character, she also helps lift up several weaker performances and invests this cautious, at times bizarrely buoyant, movie with the gravity it frequently seems to want to shrug off."
The Orlando Sentinel's Roger Moore feels exactly the opposite about the film's handling of its difficult themes, writing, "Despite its occasional cloying moments, 'The Help' transcends its comfort-food-for-Oprah’s Book Club-ready wrapping to get at something deeper, the gray in a story that seems so far removed as to be utterly black and white."
The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips sees Davis' performance as the film's crowning achievement. As he says at the top of his review, "The actress deserves the Academy Award nomination (if not the Oscar Itself) she'll be receiving come early 2012. I'm not working for her; I'm just passing along news of the nearly inevitable." Not only does the film get a review, but it draws out a bold prediction from the critic.
Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris opens his review with a personal anecdote about his own journey to the American South and uses it as a way to view the film, which he says "is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time."
New York Magazine's David Edelstein sees the largely female cast as the film's saving grace. He writes, " 'The Help' could have ended up a misogynist cartoon, but these actresses find every possible nuance." Chief among those performances, as he once again points out, is that of Davis. "'The Help' belongs to Viola Davis.... She has eyes unlike other actress's: hard, unyielding, with no give back."
Will the praise for Davis pay off? We have just four and a half short months to see.
--Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Viola Davis, left, and Octavia Spencer star in "The Help." Credit: Dale Robinette / DreamWorks