Sometimes, one looks at a new release and says, "hell no, I am not paying money to see that", and goes on about one's business, and then the movie goes to #1 for the weekend. And since one has promised that he shall review every #1 movie, he reluctantly prepares to see it. Ah, but that is a good scenario. For sometimes, a movie goes to #1 after it has already been out a week, which means it's no longer in the public consciousness like it was. When this happens, one might sweat a little, and look shiftily about, and hope that nobody will notice if he maybe fudges just a hair. And then this same movie goes to #1 for a second consecutive week despite being in no way, shape, or form a tentpole movie or a big deal release of any sort. At this point, our of course entirely theoretical film reviewer has to deal with the fact that after three solid weeks, there is really just about nothing to say regarding a film that doesn't have very much worth talking about in the first place, and which was already talked to death by anybody who might actually want to have an opinion about it some ten days hence.

So here I am, then, with The Help, about which the only interesting topic is the question of, is it racist? And if you give a shit about the answer to that question, there is doubtlessly little that I can do to help at this point. Which is why I'm going to sidle around the question, stopping to note only that it seems odd to me to say (as I have seen done) that if a film set in the South during the Jim Crow era presents two African-American housekeepers having a grand time joking about the shallowness of their white employers, it is incontestably a racist film, since they would not actually want to make light of their horrible lives. On the contrary, people have a fantastic ability to make jokes about whatever incredibly shitty situation they live in, and this is one of the dumbfounding ways that people manage to keep being functional long after the point where you'd have thought they would break, and that is why all societies gravitate towards a lower class made up of uncomplaining wage slaves. Because they can.

Anyway, if The Help isn't racist in the "The darkies want to rape your daughters" sense of The Birth of a Nation, it's still racist enough that it pains one to think that it could possibly be made in 2011. But what I find even more frustrating and problematic is that the film, as a parable for bourgeoisie liberal audiences (i.e. if Stanley Kramer were alive today, he would almost certainly have had a hand in producing the thing), is smugly congratulatory and historically illiterate - you know those movies that come out every now and then that seem to come right up to the edge of saying in so many words, "50 years ago people were racist, but now, thankfully, we're all much more enlightened and there's no race problem in America these days" as though all the troubles of the world were solved by a clutch of weepy, breast-beating white people working alongside black people back in the '60s, a message that is incredibly flattering if you are one of the contemporary white people who thinks the Right Way, and has managed to convince yourself in defiance of all the evidence that there is not currently a racial divide in our society. In short, it bothers me not that The Help is a racially problematic story - not primarily, anyway - but that it looks down on the obvious racial bigotry of 1963 Mississippi from a perspective of such platitudinous knowingness that is, itself, as willfully blind to reality and to its own behavior as the characters in the movie who seem to genuinely believe that because they don't "own" black people, there are no more civil rights problems in America. It's the flagrant hypocrisy about racism that rankles me most.

Um... so in The Help, Emma Stone plays a recent graduate from Ole Miss, one Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who returns home to Jackson to find herself a journalism job so that she can brush up her resume and move to New York. Her nascent sense of social justice and basic human decency is affronted by the carefully manicured lifestyles of the impressively shallow socialites she counts among her friends, typified by the passive-aggressive bitch Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, finally finding a role she was meant to play in the figure of an unlikable, image-obsessed ice queen*), lifestyles built on the misery of underpaid, overworked African-American maids living as slaves in all but name, people like Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Skeeter is struck with a fit of genius, and decides to record the maids' stories about the constant indignities they suffer in a book, which she hopes will change the way the world views these women, especially the parts of the world that are kept neat and clean by their blood and tears.

All so much boilerplate, really: what it reminded me of more than anything was John Waters's classic Hairspray stripped of its satire or sense of irony, considering its fascination with fashion and style as a signifier of '60s cultural norms and all. Of course, strip Hairspray of satire and irony, and what you have left is barely a functioning movie at all, and certainly not a pleasant one to watch, and so it is with The Help, which trots through its extravagantly unchallenging message using plenty of big words and obvious signposts as to how blatantly awful these people are over there, and how wonderful these people over here, and how wonderful it is, viewer, that you are over here with us.

On top of which, it's a chore to sit through. At 146 minutes long, there is absolutely no excusing the running time: the drearily capital-I Important Mississippi fucking Burning handled its business with less padding. And padding it is, too, especially the bit about the new white trash woman, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain in an awful, one-note comic performance, doing what she can to ruin the glow still hanging about her from The Tree of Life), who is so oblivious to the way people think and act in Jackson that she doesn't even realise she's meant to be racist herself, and this proves... something. That only incompetent slapstick clowns are truly colorblind, I guess.

All that stands between the film and oblivion are the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer: both of them proving, through a great deal of no-doubt painful effort, that it is possible to drag an entire film back from the brink just through force of characterisation. It is only through their entirely different but equally sincere approaches to their roles that the African-American women whom the film is theoretically meant to stand up for are given any sort of personality or dignity - for example when the script calls for Davis's Aibileen to wax nostalgic about the white children she's raised, it falls to the actress alone to draw the lines connecting that to her feelings of bitterness that those same white children made it impossible for her to care for her own deceased son. I could go on, but the point is a simple one: when either or both of those actresses are onscreen, The Help manages to feel like a real story about people who live or suffer. When they are not, it is a panoply of lazy bromides.

*Well, I'm sorry. I just do not like her, and if her father were anybody else, we'd all have been spared quite a few mortifying attempts at "acting".