Every summer witnesses the release of a handful of counter-programming efforts, titles designed to satisfy audiences who don't particularly care for superhero sagas or alien adventures or gross-out gags. Larry Crowne, which looked like a surefire bet, crashed and burned (who knew it would be so terrible?), while the clever Midnight in Paris, initially perceived as another Woody Allen bauble that would fade into the night, emerged as the biggest moneymaker of his career. And now there's The Help, which occupies the slot held by last summer's Eat Pray Love: a female-geared August release adapted from a best-selling book.
Given its central plotline - in the racially divided Mississippi of the early 1960s, a white writer (Emma Stone's Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan) gives voice to the stories of her town's black maids - it would be easy to dismiss The Help as yet another "liberal guilt" movie, the sort that's invariably told through the eyes of its Caucasian lead rather than those of its African-American characters.
Yet while Skeeter certainly clocks a sizable amount of screen time, it's never in doubt that the true protagonists are Aibileen and Minny, two domestics brought to vivid life through the extraordinary performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.
Many of the conflicts play out as expected, and Bryce Dallas Howard's racist housewife proves to be about as subtle as Cruella De Vil. But interesting subplots abound - I particularly liked the relationship between Minny and her insecure employer Celia Foote, played by The Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain - and with its influx of emotionally wrenching scenes, The Help provides assistance to adults in search of some cinematic substance.
30 MINUTES OR LESS
While I've seen worse comedies this year, I haven't sat through any as unpleasant as 30 Minutes or Less. Never mind that newbie screenwriters Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan loosely based their script on a real-life incident that ended in death (their claims to the contrary are blatant lies); if there's one thing we've learned from a century-plus of cinema, it's that just about any subject can explored for potential humor if the right people are involved. But in the case of 30 Minutes or Less, the right people must have been off making another movie.
A shrill, clumsy film that has no idea how to orchestrate its black-comedy maneuvers, this finds Jesse Eisenberg cast as Nick, a pizza delivery man who's kidnapped by two grade-A doofuses, Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson). Needing $100,000 in a jiffy, the pair strap a bomb to Nick and inform him that he must rob a bank or else the device will explode. A frantic Nick gets his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) to participate, but matters only get more hectic, not less, in the aftermath of the heist.
Eisenberg fares best simply by not straying far from his patented persona (The Social Network star even gets off a joke about Facebook), but whoever thought that casting three irritants like McBride, Swardson and Ansari in the same film was a good idea clearly has a much higher threshold for obnoxious behavior than I do.
The shocking story behind this largely laughless endeavor is that it was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who previously teamed with Eisenberg on the wild and witty Zombieland. But while that engaging effort brought new life to the zombie flick, this one is strictly dead on arrival.