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MOVIE REVIEW: Top-notch cast makes their voices heard in 'The Help'

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

The Help (PG-13)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Considering the immense effect it had on the American cultural and political landscape there have been relatively few feature films about the Civil Rights Movement and only a handful of exceptional ones. "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Mississippi Burning," "Ghosts of Mississippi" and "Malcolm X" are considered by most to be the cream of the crop.

A fair portion of "The Help" is excellent and even many of the weaker stretches come off better than they should thanks to a top-flight cast. Like three of the five previously mentioned titles, it takes place in Mississippi in the '60s and deals with race relations so by default it will be incorrectly lumped into the Civil Rights category when in reality it is a chick-bonding flick.

Based on the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, the movie starts with a brisk, superbly edited opening title sequence accompanied by Johnny Cash's rousing "Jackson" that sets a tone the remainder of the film fails to match, thanks mostly to an overlong 146 minute running time. If slimmed down by at least 25 or 30 minutes, the movie would have certainly achieved the immediacy and significant stature it so desperately seeks.

After establishing herself as the new go-to romantic comedy leading lady, Emma Stone pulls a major about-face as Skeeter, an aspiring writer and probably the only woman in Jackson not looking to latch on to a man and begin spawning.

Willing to start at the bottom, Skeeter takes a poor paying gig as a ghost advice columnist who doles out helpful household cleaning tips. Knowing nothing of this field of endeavor, Skeeter turns to Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid working for one of her former high school friends.

Initially -- when talking just about cleaning -- Aibileen obliges Skeeter, but when the conversation starts veering into working conditions and the toll her job has on her personal life, Aibileen becomes guarded, tight-lipped and rightfully paranoid.

In a move that is both opportunistic and empathetic, Skeeter pitches a story idea to a New York glossy. She'll write a series about the lives of southern maids, the women they work for and life in post-Jim Crow south. The editor (Mary Steenburgen) likes the idea but insists Skeeter interview dozens of maids, a task that could prove to be difficult if not impossible.

The tagline on the movie poster - "change begins with a whisper" - is not only accurate it also describes the tone and writer/director Tate Taylor's consistently delicate approach. Knowing clear well the audience will likely be about 95 percent over-30 females Taylor largely avoids the type of dramatic tension a Civil Rights movie requires. There is no violence depicted and the two significant non-fictional events are handled far off-screen. There are also only three male speaking parts and all are kept to an absolute minimum.

Dividing his time between Hallmark bits of drama and sit-com level comic relief, Taylor seems overeager to please and deathly afraid to offend, with the possible exception being a late arriving joke about a tainted chocolate pie that gets run into ground.

Even with the relatively light, uneven and tedious script, Taylor is able draw out more than a half-dozen stand-out performances from the major characters. In addition to Stone and Davis, third co-lead Octavia Spencer provides considerable spitfire moxie and shows what it's like being a black woman in the south with an opinion at a time when attitude of any sort was met with stern reprimand.

Sissy Spacek and Alison Janney put distinctly different spins on the southern matriarchal archetypes both in positive and negative ways. Arguably the stand-outs are Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life") as an ostracized and misunderstood housewife and Bryce Dallas Howard as the queen bee/social butterfly Hilly.

Puffed up with misguided privilege, haughty entitlement and an above-it-all air, Hilly will go to great lengths to get her way at all times and isn't afraid to step on anybody including her own mother. After years of treading water in good girl roles and trying to escape her father Ron's shadow, Howard gets the juiciest part of her career and makes the absolute most it. Her Hilly is the most imposing villain of the year thus far and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination would be well deserved. She is the finest facet of a very well-intended but highly uneven film. (DreamWorks)