The Help

Pauline Kael wrote that the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, produced in 1962 and set in Alabama during the 1930s, was in “part Hollywood self-congratulation for its enlightened racial attitudes.” And now we have The Help, based on a 2009 best-seller set in Jackson, Miss., circa 1962, “honoring white viewers for not being horrible racists.” Times may change, but the way people want to feel about themselves doesn’t; and there must be a name for the fallacy which makes people believe that, if they’d been around way back when, they’d certainly have been progressives. People often take one of their most important tools—hindsight—for granted, so it’s easy to mistake our forebears for buffoons, because they hadn’t the benefit of our education, and lived at a time when things that are now considered grotesque were accepted social norms. The movie is about the mistreatment of black maids at the hands of white housewives, and I do not mean to suggest that I am defending the reactionary attitudes of the latter. (One of the wives proposes, as her signature cause, a law enforcing that maids relieve themselves outside, rather than sully the indoor bathrooms. “Separate but equal,” the partisan parrots.) But my point is that nobody now—on the record, at least—approves of such positions, and so the people who once held them can be made to seem like random aberrations when they were, in fact, often swimming the mainstream. Just like the movie is.

Taken on its own—as a dog-days entertainment, co-produced by Chris Columbus, meant to cool off audience apprehensions like a paper fan—The Help is okay. The graceful Viola Davis and sprightly Octavia Spencer have been justly praised; eager Emma Stone, as the privileged, frizzy-haired Skeeter—an Ole Miss grad who wants to kickstart her journalistic career by chronicling the maids’ discontents anonymously, in a book—looks too much like someone who could be in line behind you at Starbucks in 2011; Allison Janney, as her ailing Southern-belle mother, is made up in one scene to look like Jackie-O gone Wacko Jacko; Jessica Chastain is good comic relief; Bryce Dallas Howard—playing Hilly, the outhouse proponent—is basically made into one of the Heathers; and so on. The color is chipper-chipper and the story (adapted by the director, Tate Taylor) resorts to such melodramatic devices as bawling babies and delayed climaxes. (The revelation about Skeeter’s mammy—Cicely Tyson—struck me as particularly unconvincing and overwrought.) There’s a poop joke out of Bridesmaids thrown into the mix, and it’s meant to be taken as a symbol of liberation. And, no, not liberation from bowels—sorry, couldn’t resist.

In sum, The Help is feel-good popular entertainment that plays by the Hollywood rules; and, given what it is, I cannot fault it for that. It isn’t, in itself, offensive: It’s neither opportunistic about race relations, like Precious, nor as illuminating on the subject as Night Catches Us or Talk to Me. Regarding its worth, most critics have already covered the bases, ranging from the dubious convention that black history must be seen through a white lens to the worthy point that the film, when it deals with the maids’ testimony, does honorably offer up a perspective that we rarely have the pleasure of hearing. But the movie reminded me of something Christopher Hitchens once said about how it’s now conventional thinking to see the Civil Rights movement as a noble moment in U.S. history, but how conventionalism “may mask for people how noble it really was.” That is to say, we all celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday—but do we really understand what exactly he was up against and why? The Help doesn’t, and probably doesn’t want to. If it did, we might have come out with more understanding of how the system put maids at its mercy or why it was important to their conventional-minded employers that it stay that way. (The “banality of evil” may be a cliché, but it’s one of very few that Hollywood rarely dares to touch.) Whether the effect is direct or not, simplified histories like this one pollute the well of memory, and allow neo-Birchites like Glenn Beck to pontificate with King’s words—even if a person like Beck probably would’ve been no more King’s ally than Hilly.

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Crazy, Stupid, Love

If you can accept the pretense that Steve Carell would be married to Julianne Moore; that law-student Emma Stone is pre-engaged to Josh Groban (pretty awesome casting, actually); that Moore would cheat on Carell with Kevin Bacon; that that dissolves their marriage; that said marriage would produce a mind-numbingly precocious son, that species of old-soul soccer player native only to Hollywood; that the militantly square suburban-dad tatterdemalion would sip vodka-cranberries at the same swanky club as Ryan Gosling, a lothario so fresh-to-death that a mortician couldn’t improve on his corpse; that Gosling, who probably studied under the Most Interesting Man in the World from those beer commercials, would take it upon himself to mentor the soon-to-be-suede-clad Carell in the ways of the metrosexual, which I pegged as a dying breed; that the 13-year-old son would stage a public reading of The Scarlet Letter to capture his 17-year-old babysitter’s heart; that Carell would randomly hook up with Marisa Tomei, who’s quite funny as said son’s recovering-alcoholic teacher; that, after his first attempt at conjugal reconquista fails, rain starts to fall and Carell says “this is such a cliché”; that Stone is apparently the one girl “substantial” enough to rebuff Gosling and thus turns out to be his Soul Mate; that Gosling solicits Carell’s help to kindle a Meaningful Relationship; that, with no apparent occupation other than picking up chicks by the skewer, Gosling isn’t a serial killer or the record-holder for most S.T.D.’s per capita; and that—God, I won’t even stoop to recapping the way the filmmakers tie the subplots together—then you’ll probably accept the proposition that Crazy, Stupid, Love is a well-made rom-com, and that it’s so refreshing to see a movie for grown-ups amid a summerful of kiddie crap—just like, as a matter of fact, The Kids Are All Right was at this time last summer.

If you can’t accept that run-on pretense, then you’ll probably find the movie contemptible. Or maybe you’ll find it, like I did, to be a high-end sitcom that looks like a vodka ad and sounds like what your Carellian dad approves of as current and hip. It’s Captain America for the sonnet set, sure; but as harmless as a sunny day spent poolside.

Captain America

Captain America is remarkably unremarkable as a movie. Each edge is so smoothly crenulate that you can smell the cookie-cutter that molded it; and, yes, this cookie came from a tube. Whereas nearly every major superhero franchise of the last decade has been spearheaded by a director who was taking to the Hollywood bank credits he’d earned in Indiewood, this first link of the Captain’s inevitably interminable chain—interlocked, as it is, with all the rest of the Avengers—has been helmed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji, The Wolfman, Jurassic Park III). And in a way, it’s a relief: Superhero duty is largely hack work, so it’s finally fallen into the right hands. The film is mild and skillful enough to be acceptable to adults—who’ll appreciate Stanley Tucci’s Einstein impression—and lapped up by kids. (Imagination not included.) A movie that is still adroit in performing this function—that can reconcile its complete lack of original thinking with a complete lack of Nolanesque pretension—deserves its share of credit. It structures adolescent fantasia in a way that Transformers III, its drive-in double bill, refused to—though Michael Bay, in his defense, has frisson; and this film is no less an overfed cash-cow than his adbots are.

Captain America is somewhat remarkable, however, as a milestone of sorts: It and Thor may be the first film franchises explicitly bred for crossover. Aliens and Predators coexisted peaceably for years before being dragged into conflict; Freddy and Jason probably admired one another’s work from afar; and the Flintstones were extinct millenia before the Jetsons came aknockin’. But this is a whole new world of husbandry. Would square Captain America have found his way to the screen without being obligated to cross streams with irreverent Iron Man in The Avengers? It isn’t only a question of brand differentiation or minority appeal. The character reeks not just of just World War II, but of a more tender wound, the post-Sept. 11 nationalist zeal, when black & white was once again cloaked in red, white, and blue. (This hasn’t totally ceased to happen; but it’s found other cloaks.) So, in an era of shady military contractors, of dribbling support for wars in Libya and Afghanistan, and reticence about Iraq, would such freestanding patriotism still play? Propaganda is the material’s essence, an infusion of Spidey’s wish-fulfilling transmutation with a jingoistic twist. This ’40s fish may need to be plucked from its water and have Tony Stark spew acid rain on its parade—not an anti-American shower, just a cynical drizzle. Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans, via digital diminution) is a morally strong weakling from Brooklyn who is allowed into the Army because, unbeknownst to him, his native virtue makes him the perfect guinea pig for being turned into a human Panzer: Captain America. A weaponized shrimp. This furrows the brow. Is he now property of the Army—lock, stock, and new barrel chest? Will he be mothballed in peacetime? When his body was enhanced did everything grow, you know, proportionally? Like Tony Stark wouldn’t ask that question! Maybe, in The Avengers, he will.