|Lee Daniels' The Butler
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr.
By the time this review is posted, Lee Daniels’ The Butler will have claimed the number 1 spot at the weekend box office, collecting a cool $25 million dollars. Some might find this shocking that a movie about a butler whose career at the White House spanned 7 Presidents. But the Weinstein Company are no fools and they know that counter programming like this, this late into the summer movie season works. It works because people are weary of getting pummeled by all the big summer films and it also allows them to throw out the first shot for Oscar talk. Why do I bring this up? Well, I want to say to you, don’t get sucked into the hype.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Way to go by the way for not solving that little dilemma with Warner Bros over the title and had to resort to this really obnoxious title) is a sheep in wolfs clothing. A film that looks like it has something really important to say, but in reality just plods along hoping no one gets wise to their boxing clever scheme. Sure some the performances are particularly good. But that’s bound to happen when you populate your film with a cast of decent to really good actors and have a director that can draw out good performances. But the Butler is empty calories, filled with missed opportunities and no emotional core. It’s almost infuriating when you think about it. A movie that offers you filet mignon when all you’re getting is rump roast. Oh, and the movie takes a lot of liberties with history as well, almost presenting itself as fact, when it’s pretty removed from it.
The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who we see as a child growing up in the cotton fields of Georgia in the 1920’s. Cecil sees his dad murdered by the plantation owners son (he also rapes Cecil’s mother). Ms. Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) the owner of the plantation takes pity on him and moves him inside to be a house servant. Cecil eventually leaves and through a good bit of luck (by way of another servant job) finds himself as a servant at the Excelsior Hotel in Washington D.C. Cecil’s attention to detail and pride in the job lands him a job at the White House, where he is the Butler from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Reagan (Alan Rickman). But we also get to see Cecil and his life outside of his job, his struggles with his alcoholic wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) to an older son Louis (David Oyelowo) who wants to join the movement in the South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. All the while maintaining his pride and dedication to a job he sees as a means to make a better life for his family. A life he obviously didn’t have.
The thing that holds the Butler’s head above water are the performances. From Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr as colleagues of Cecil’s at the White House, to Winfrey and Oyelowo, to Liev Schrieber (as Lyndon Johnson) & James Mardsen (as JFK) in their brief roles. Whitaker is the standout though, bringing to life a guy who just wants to provide for his family and doesn’t want to get caught up in the political game and the changing world that exists around him. Even as his son Louis goes to march along side Martin Luther King Jr, Cecil is upset over the fact that Louis has stopped going to college, something Cecil worked hard to pay for. It’s an interesting character put into a time when chaos and upheaval where knocking on his door (Cecil also has another son who ends up going to Vietnam).
But the thing that completely derails the Butler is the narrative, or lack thereof. The movie, especially concerning Cecil and his family, the divide that exists between he and his son Louis; these are the most potent parts of the story, but the movie can’t concentrate enough telling you this part of Cecil’s life to get any sort of emotional punch out of it. It seems more interested in showing you which celebrity is playing what president (look it’s John Cusack as Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan!). Cecil interacts with these Presidents (and First Lady), they asking him about his life, but the movie doesn’t spend enough time to get any sort of payoff with these scenes, instead briskly moving you along like a White House tour. All of this, Cecil’s story, is the selling point of the movie. Had the movie cut about 20 minutes and really put its focus on the family life, then The Butler would really have something, instead it like thumbing through a book of old photos. Yeah they look interesting, but without a strong back story, you’re left without any sort of attachment.
So I can’t really recommend The Butler. Well, I take that back. If you want to see a really good performance from a really good actor, The Butler won’t waste your time. Just don’t expect to get much out of it.