If A Hard Day's Night captured Beatlemania on the upswing, Help! represents the last gasps of the Beatles' naive and joyful innocence. The band is a little older and a little more serious - the next time we hear them, their drug use and bitterness towards fame had produced Rubber Soul, marking the end of the early Beatles. Watching Help! is a bittersweet experience. John, Paul, George, and Ringo get to be the Boys for one last time, but they didn't know what we do - that it really would be the last time.
The plot revolves around an incompetent Eastern (or as the movie calls them, Oriental) religious cult dedicated to getting back a sacrificial ring that has been mailed to Ringo by any means necessary. After several more modest attempts, they resolve to kill the drummer. When the Beatles figures out what's going on with the help of the beautiful Eleanor Bron, playing a dissident from the cult, they go to a scientist to have the ring removed. The scientist, played by Victor Spinetti, turns out to be slightly on the mad side and also starts trying to capture Ringo and get the ring. The resulting antics have the Beatles fleeing to all kinds of exotic locations.
The writing and the plot are both significantly weaker than in A Hard Day's Night. Where there are one-liners, they sometimes work and sometimes don't. Even when they do, there's a kind of formulaic "this worked before so let's try it again" feeling to them. The reckless and blustering non-sequiturs don't work as well as they did before. Not to say that the movie isn't funny or that the Beatles don't look like they're having a good time - there is still joking and laughter and a "buddy" feel to them. But carelessness is not what this movie does best, and so even when it works it seems a little out of place.
Where Help! shines - where it's even better than A Hard Day's Night - is in the series of what can only be called music videos. In A Hard Day's Night, the music cuts in and out, while in Help! Lester lets the Beatles play straight through most of their songs. His camera is less frantic and a touch more deferential, either taking wide shots when the Beatles play in an open field or panning in to capture the setting sun shining through a guitar on a sandy beach. The music is not really part of the movie like it is in A Hard Day's Night. It's more like a series of relaxing and tight music videos in between the plot. Where in A Hard Day's Night the music is played by the Beatles within the context of the movie itself, in Help! it's almost like the movie is at best an excuse to treat the viewer to the beautifully crafted music videos.
I'm probably being a little too hard on Help!. The jokes are easy to laugh with, the Boys are fun to watch, and the dames are easy on the eyes. If watching it was just like watching any old movie, it would be an entertaining distraction. Unlike Magical Mystery Tour or Yellow Submarine it never becomes painful to watch, while Lester's talent ensures that the music videos often rise to nothing short of breath-taking. But, unlike a Hard Day's Night, it's not a good enough film to make us shake the premonition that we're watching something that would very soon end - and that makes the entire thing a little sad.