There are few movies that feature Allison Janney in a leading role. This is not because filmmakers don’t want to hire her. During a long-standing stint as an in-demand character actress, she’s worked with Ang Lee, Mike Nichols, Todd Solondz, Kenneth Lonergan, Tim Burton and Sam Mendes, among others, culminating in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in I, Tonya (on top of the multiple Emmys for The West Wing and Mom). So it feels notable that in 2021, a few years past her 60th birthday, Allison Janney is unequivocally starring in a movie: Breaking News in Yuba County, which came out last weekend on VOD (and in theaters, where available). The director is not Ang Lee, Todd Solondz, or Sam Mendes. It is, instead, perhaps her greatest champion: Tate Taylor, the actor-turned-director who made The Help.
The Help is not a very good movie, and neither is Breaking News in Yuba County. In it, Janney plays the cutesily named Sue Buttons, a put-upon middle-aged woman perpetually overlooked by her husband (Matthew Modine), her coworkers and her half-sister (Mila Kunis), a TV reporter. None of them remember her birthday; her husband is particularly distracted by his affair with another woman. When Sue discovers them mid-coitus, he drops dead of a heart attack. Rather than reporting his death, Sue scares away his mistress, buries his body (along with, unwittingly, some stolen money) and decides to pass him off as missing, for attention. After all, she’s been doing her daily affirmations, assuring herself that her story matters. This is just her way of taking control of that story.
You can probably tell what kind of bad movie this is: Affected. Smugly “satirical” without really satirizing anything. One of many Fargo knockoffs, full of zany quirks and sticky ends, that makes Fargo seem better and richer than ever. If this were Taylor’s follow-up to The Help, it would be a classic swing-and-a-miss, presumably made after a massive, Oscar-nominated hit gave him freedom and access to a great cast. But Breaking News in Yuba County is just one of many Tate Taylor movies that have followed in the wake of The Help, and his third in the past 21 months. His most recent three all dip into different genres, only to emerge looking more soapy than pulpy: Since May 2019, he’s released a horror movie/high-school reunion melodrama (Ma); an action-thriller/family melodrama (Ava, recently seen tearing up the Netflix charts); and now a blackly comic caper that’s also about sisters supporting each other.
All of these movies star cast members from The Help. Taylor and Janney go even further back; she appeared in his 2003 short film “Chicken Party,” which also starred Octavia Spencer and Melissa McCarthy prior to their movie-star days. McCarthy, Spencer and Janney went on to appear in his little-seen feature directing debut Pretty Ugly People. Spencer won an Oscar for The Help and was front and center for Ma. Janney has appeared in all of Taylor’s films with the exception of Ava, which starred The Help’s Jessica Chastain. And this isn’t just the Help ensemble working to recapture that film’s dubious magic. Diana Silvers, the young heroine from Ma, turns up in Ava, while Juliette Lewis (also in Ma) has a few scenes in Yuba County as a platitude-spouting talk show host obsessing over a local girl’s disappearance. Clearly Taylor’s casts—particularly his actresses—love him.
In particular, his recent movies give ample screen time to middle-aged women, terrific performers often relegated to character parts or an eighth-billed “and” credit in a superhero movie. That’s what gives the otherwise disparate Yuba, Ava and Ma some unity: Taylor clearly wants to tease out the interpersonal conflicts that fuel his plots’ otherwise outlandish clashes, and give his favorite performers something to really dig into. Janney, in Yuba County, gets to play comic, tragic and conniving; she’s somehow both deeply guilty (her lies about her husband set off a chain of events that leaves several dead bodies in her wake) and wrongfully accused (contrary to the suspicions of a local cop, she did not murder anyone). Janney does what she can with these contradictions, but the material gives her character-role dimension with leading-role screen time and often feels like different flavors of shtick.
Ultimately, Sue sounds more complicated than she really is, just as Chastain’s high-powered super-assassin from Ava has more tortured backstory than genuine inner life. Part of the trouble is that Taylor is pretty bad at staging the stuff his characters actually do, especially when it comes to physical violence, which didn’t really play into The Help. Despite Chastain’s general commitment, her acrobatics during various fights and shoot-outs in Ava sometimes look hilariously unconvincing, as if choreographed around certain immovable routines that she couldn’t master. In Yuba County, Taylor seems to understand that Fargo-like movies often include unexpected bursts of violence, and he crams them all together into the last 20 minutes or so, like knocking over a vase a few seconds before jumping out and shouting “surprise!” Ma has a mid-movie murder scene that has almost no bearing on the plot, happens brusquely and is never mentioned again by anyone.
Ma, which Taylor has talked about sequelizing, is also the closest that one of these movies has come to really working. Its small-town grudges feel relatively lived-in, and Spencer does uncommonly well with the Tate Taylor special: Rolling an uncomfortable mix of tones into a performance that walks the line between touchingly sincere and laughably ridiculous. Her woundedness at abuse suffered as a shy teenager and pride in briefly providing a strange friendship to a group of cool teenagers (and the children of some former tormentors) shares common ground with Janney’s character in Yuba; they’re even both named Sue. More so than Janney, Spencer restrains herself from going full-on cartoon. She turns her Sue into a borderline great part for a longtime character actor, who would be frequently relegated to playing mentors and best friends even after winning an Oscar (and getting nominated for two more).
Even Ma, though, has a weirdly unacknowledged racial component—something else Taylor carries over to Breaking News in Yuba County, which recruits several more actors who might turn up in future Tate Taylor films: The great Regina Hall as the cop who doesn’t trust Sue, Awkwafina as an intimidating criminal enforcer, Samira Wiley as the pregnant wife of Sue’s ex-con brother-in-law (Jimmi Simpson) and Wanda Sykes as the ex-con’s bored boss. This looks like an object lesson in casting with an eye toward uncommented-upon diversity. Yet in a movie that aims for social satire, there surely are racial dynamics in a Black woman cop pursuing a mild-acting white woman, or an Asian-American woman (and her Asian-American father) working as part of a major criminal enterprise, or any number of situations that Taylor appears to consider addressed by giving Regina Hall a wan, under-her-breath crack about white people. A more subtle filmmaker could lay claim to concealing these tensions under the surface of a genre-first story. Taylor, you may recall, made The Help, and as such has no grounds for such a claim.
By wading into questionable racial politics and paying loving attention to the careers of his favorite, oft-underappreciated actors, all in service of bizarre genre remixes, Taylor has become something like a normcore Tarantino. If Tarantino makes movies while flipping through a mental rolodex of his every cinematic experience, Taylor seems to make them while flipping through his actual rolodex, leaving his understanding of movie genres themselves half-formed. (Maybe that’s why Ma has a couple of split diopter shots; the whole thing feels a bit like Taylor trying to square the story’s outline with his vague memory of Carrie.) There’s also the whole issue of technical mastery, which, again, has mostly eluded Taylor—his movies still look enough like low-rent direct-to-streaming titles that that’s more or less how they’ve been released, despite Ma being a hit in 2019. (Yuba County and Ava both had selective theatrical engagements; the real tell is how sparsely they were screened for critics.)
Yet there is something fascinating about Taylor’s work, even when it borders on incompetence. His recent movies are junky in ways that, intentionally or not, rebuke the prestige-picture pomp of The Help. That movie centers a story of racism on young, white Emma Stone—a wonderful actress adrift in the movie’s awkward halfway point between the white-savior narratives of the past and the more nuanced work that goes into the performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Taylor’s later work suggests that he may have learned something from that pitfall—if not necessarily all of The Help’s failings. His work still gingerly sidesteps difficult conversations about race more often than not, but his eye has traveled away from typical star turns (Chastain, the white lady at the center of Ava, is at least fraught with guilt) and his movies maintain a palpable interest in actors who aren’t always thought of as obvious leads in contemporary Hollywood.
Taylor’s affection can still curdle, as with Yuba County, which may tee up future vehicles for Awkwafina or Regina Hall, but guides them to bad performances in the meantime. He may continue to make movies, like The Girl on the Train, that call out for someone like Brian De Palma to make them better. But if Taylor feels more at home making Ava or Ma than The Help, I’m not one to argue. It’s a minor relief, seeing a filmmaker politely opt out of prestige. If Taylor hasn’t fully resolved his “actor’s director” chumminess with the darker side of human nature, at least he doesn’t seem hellbent on getting Oscars for his effort.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.