'The Help’ solidifies a summer tradition

By The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — For all the cliches about chick flicks, the form has actually taken some interesting turns in recent years. This weekend it took the latest, with the Viola Davis-starring “The Help” telling a story about friendship and loyalty against the backdrop of racism in the 1960s-era South.

Over the past few years, it’s become practically a ritual that a star-driven movie about female-friendship and -empowerment come out every summer, usually in August, and usually based on a book-club favorite. Last year it was “Eat, Pray, Love;” the summer before it was “Julie & Julia.” ”The Devil Wears Prada” (which was released over the July 4 weekend) served the genre in 2006.

Whatever these movies’ differences in tone and subject matter, they have several important things in common. They all traffic in themes about female identity. And they’re all solidly, sometimes even wildly, successful.

There are a lot of reasons why these movies have performed as well as they have, and Taylor Tate’s “The Help,” which has taken in a resounding $35.4 million since opening last Wednesday, is no different. The beloved book title gave it a running start, and critics then fanned that enthusiasm with strong reviews. “The Help’s” ability to tackle serious themes about changing the status quo in a familiar cinematic context about friendship and comedy provided that holy grail: slick entertainment that’s also a little good for you (much like “Prada’s look at post-college identity in the glittery fashion world).

But there’s another factor that may be playing into the success of all these releases. When the movie summer started getting more action-oriented and muscular, first in 1996 with “Independence Day” and more recently and robustly, with “Transformers” and a hail of superhero movies, it also blasted open a space on the other side.

After all, the people who like seeing movies about something other than explosions were still around, and they had the desire, possibly even more than ever, to see a movie aimed at them. Hollywood calls it counterprogramming, but really that’s just a jargony way of saying that if there’s too much of one thing, it reminds a whole group of people that they want the other.

The subject of women at the box office has been a hot one this summer, what with “Bridesmaids” and “Bad Teacher” putting women front-and-center in a potty-mouthed comedy. With those films, pundits said that Hollywood was serving or even creating a new audience: women who wanted their movies as bawdy and escapist as men. But with the release of a film that was comedic in a far gentler way, the most recent weekend proved that the old audience hasn’t really gone anywhere.