An Oscar front-runner joins a couple of disappointing comedies in local bargain theaters this weekend. ---
The headliner is The Help, director Tate Taylor's adaptation of the best-selling novel by his childhood friend Kathryn Stockett about a young white woman (Emma Stone) in 1963 Mississippi who writes an anonymous account of the lives of her town's black domestic servants. As was true of the book, the movie is a crowd-pleaser that avoids most of what's genuinely thorny about the subject matter in favor of allowing viewers to congratulate themselves for acknowledging that institutional racism was very, very bad. Fortunately, the performances -- notably Viola Davis as the silently suffering Aibilene, and Octavia Spencer as the simmering pot of hostility Minny -- help prevent the film from being little more than alternating series of tear-jerking and applause breaks.
Unable even to manage that level of energy in a book adaptation is The Big Year, with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as three avid birders competing to spot the most different species in North America in one calendar year. The movie ignores almost everything that's idiosyncratically interesting about devoted enthusiasts of all kinds, leaving its three stars adrift in a genial but lifeless episodic dramedy about learning "What Really Matters."
Slightly more effective -- if only because it's fully devoted to comedy -- is Johnny English Reborn, with Rowan Atkinson (pictured) returning as a bumbling British secret agent. The character is little more than an Anglophilic spin on Inspector Clouseau, and Atkinson at least gets a few more clever showcases for his slapstick gifts than the first Johnny English delivered. Yet it's still far too inconsistent, never really sure whether its protagonist is secretly competent or a complete buffoon.
Then there's Abduction, with Twilight's Taylor Lautner as a teen who discovers that his life is a lie, and he's really the child of spies. CW's MaryAnn Johanson sardonically described it as a showcase for Lautner "stand[ing] around not moving his face and taking his shirt off a lot."