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Cynical Optimist : The Help and The Change-Up

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Adapted from the novel by Kathryn Stockett and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” explores the worlds of African-American maids and their white employers in Jackson, Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights era.

Tate Taylor is a rather obscure name to direct such a huge adaptation – the novel has charted on best-seller lists for more than 100 weeks, after all. The guy’s only got one real full-length film under his belt (2008’s equally obscure “Pretty Ugly People”) – but it wasn’t his resume that got him the job, but rather his connection with writer Kathryn Stockett, who Taylor has been best friends with since they were five years old.

With that being said, the rather obscure director has just punched his ticket to the Academy Awards. “The Help” is a powerful, inspiring film that will no doubt become this year’s “The Blind Side.” An incredible ensemble of actresses including this summer’s breakout star, Emma Stone (“Crazy. Stupid. Love”), Jessica Chastain (“Tree of Life”) and Bryce Dallas Howard in her finest performance yet.

Of course it’s hard to ignore the dynamite work delivered by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis (“Doubt”), who will no doubt garner nominations come award season. Much like
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2008, “The Secret Life of Bees,” Taylor’s film explores race relations in the south during the ’60s.

I know, the premise sounds cringe-worthy: a privileged white girl writes a book about the African-American women that helped raise her — but Taylor’s film proves one thing: it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, as long as you can tell a good story, and “The Help” is a wonderful story – uplifting and healing, cinematic catharsis at its finest.

I’ve had a crush on Emma Stone since 2007’s “Superbad” – a celluloid love affair only deepened by “Zombieland,” “Easy A” and her most recent work, “Crazy. Stupid. Love.” I’m not sure if her work here will earn any awards, but it’s obvious that Stone is on fire and sure to be a great actress for many years to come.

Then there’s Jessica Chastain, who channels a bit of Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts as Celia Foote. After her quiet, nuanced performance in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” it’s great to see Chastain as a bubbly, emotional mess – the complete opposite of the loathsome, spiteful Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).

I don’t want to say much else about this movie, other than it was heartfelt and moving and worth your time (and money). While it wasn’t as personally stirring as “Beginners” or “Tree of Life,” “The Help” is a mainstream feel-good movie that you’ll no doubt hear a lot of buzz about. The good news is, it lives up to the hype (which is more than I can say about the majority of films this summer).

Directed by David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers,” “Fred Claus”), “The Change-Up” stars Jason Bateman as a beaten-down family man who accidentally swaps bodies with his best friend (Ryan Reynolds), leading to a series of wildly complex difficulties.

Technically, you would classify Dobkin’s movie as a comedy, though that’s certainly debatable. One of the defining characteristics of a comedy is that it is, in fact, comical – evoking laughter in the viewer.

During the film’s 112-minute duration, I laughed twice – and for very different reasons than being entertained by hilarious jokes. I laughed out of shock, really, at how irresponsible and shamelessly low class Dobkin’s film is – a film that considers horrific parenting as gut-busting comedic touchstone.

Bateman plays the same character he always does – the man of Suburbia who’s at his wits’ end, struggling to find happiness in his existence as a family man.

Then there’s Ryan Reynolds, who channels Van Wilder and makes one dick joke after another. Sometimes he’ll mix it up and throw in a vagina joke or some ass play to keep the audience on their heels. Throw in a “fuckity-fuck-fuck” and you have pretty much every line of dialogue his character delivers.

Then there’s Leslie Mann, who plays Bateman’s wife – and subsequently – every character she’s ever played in a film, just a bit more annoying. Whereas there was real heart to even the raunchiest humor in “Bridesmaids,” Dobkin’s film feels like it was written by 15-year-old boys and produced by a fraternity of douchebags.

Hell, this film makes Todd Phillips’ “The Hangover: Part II” look like “Bringing Up Baby.” The only saving grace is Olivia Wilde – yes, the same Olivia Wilde who stunk up the screen in “Cowboys & Aliens.”

When it became apparent that I wouldn’t be laughing during the film, I decided to focus solely on Wilde’s big green eyes and stare in awe at her beauty — which made the rest of the movie decidedly easier to stomach. As a matter of fact, I’m going to go ahead and post a picture of her, so there’s at least one good thing about this review:

Beyond the fact that the film isn’t funny and features two actors playing the same tired old characters they always play, there might be something salvageable if the script wasn’t the same “body swap” scenario we’ve seen in countless other films. It’s essentially “Big” meets “13 Going on 30″ meets “Freaky Friday” – except not enjoyable.

Compared to this summer’s comedies, “The Change-Up” comes in dead last — yet another strikeout for Ryan Reynolds, who has delivered two of the worst movies this summer (here’s lookin’ at you, “Green Lantern”).

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