|FOREST WHITAKER stars in LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER|
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER
2013, 132 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Review by Joshua Handler
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the biggest piece of Oscar bait that I’ve seen all year. It is being released around the same time that The Help, another Civil Rights drama, was released two years ago, it has an Oscar-nominated director (Lee Daniels) and acclaimed screenwriter (Danny Strong), and it stars Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, and many others (all of the aforementioned actors are Oscar-winners, save for Winfrey who was Oscar-nominated for her powerful performance in Spielberg’s The Color Purple). That being said, it is nowhere near Oscar caliber, save for the superb performances by Whitaker and Winfrey. The Butler was inspired by a true story and tells the story of Cecil Gaines, an African-American man born in the South in the 1920s who becomes a butler in the White House and ends up serving multiple presidents and living through the Civil Rights movement.
This movie is such a mixed bag, so I’ll start with the good. Forest Whitaker gives an understated performance that is one of his best. Because Gaines cannot take an active role in politics and cannot join the Civil Rights movement, he has to internalize everything. Whitaker’s performance is so impressive because he conveys so much while saying so little. A simple look from him is like a window into his character’s soul. Winfrey looks as if she’s having a blast playing Gloria, Cecil’s wife. It is great to see Winfrey back on the big screen. I think she’s a very talented actress and in The Butler, she shows why she should be on the big screen, rather than the small one. She is fun to watch. She’s energetic, but is powerful in her more dramatic scenes. She brings all of the passion and fire that she brings to her other projects into this film. David Oyelowo is solid as Cecil and Gloria’s politically active son. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr. co-star as Cecil’s co-workers in the White House and are a lot of fun to watch. Gooding hasn’t been this good in years. The performances of big-name actors as presidents is a mixed bag, though. James Marsden is excellent as John F. Kennedy, Alan Rickman is surprisingly good as Ronald Reagan, but John Cusack is miscast as Nixon, and Williams (an actor who I greatly admire) is severely miscast as Eisenhauer (he is a dead ringer for Truman in this movie).
The film has some genuinely funny moments, and the voiceover works surprisingly well here (I normally hate it). Since Cecil is such an emotionally closed-off man, the VO complements his performance nicely. It is also obvious that Lee Daniels cares about this project. He doesn’t do a very great job directing, but the passion is there and that is admirable.
Daniels is best known for his Oscar-nominated direction 2009’s excellent Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, a forceful film that required little restraint. The Butler is a film that needs subtlety and restraint to succeed, two things that Daniels does not bring to this film. At times, The Butler veers into melodrama, others just trashy drama. The Butler gets a bit outrageous when it shouldn’t, which does a disservice to its respectful nature. Because the film turns to Daniels’ trash instincts (while I haven’t seen Daniels’ notorious 2012 film The Paperboy, reports are that it is quite trashy), large tonal shifts occur, which disrupt the flow of the movie.
The horrible editing also disrupts the flow of the film. Something just feels off throughout. The first chunk of the movie moves at a nice pace. However, once Ford and Carter’s administrations are about to be addressed, they are completely skipped over and replaced with an odd montage. Every other president before them had been given screen time and a piece of the story, but Ford and Carter’s administrations and their effects on Cecil are not shown, causing the final part of the film to be rushed. The film ends with Obama’s election, and this section is handled very poorly, as it is too political for a largely apolitical film. It is heavy-handed and should’ve been dealt with much better than it is here. Danny Strong’s (Game Change) screenplay plays a large role in the aforementioned issues. The grandiose score is interspersed with pop songs and this frequently overplays the drama and takes the seriousness out of many serious situations like a sit-in in a southern diner.
Overall, I couldn’t recommend seeing Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but I wouldn’t discourage people from seeing it because there is a lot to like about it. It is a film made to be a crowd-pleaser and it will certainly please those who like their history simplistic and Forrest Gump-like. Others will be maddened by the disservice that this movie does to its source. I, however, thought that it is a well-acted and entertaining film that just could have been so much better.