Saturday, August 17, 2013

Day 232: Lee Daniels' The Butler


"Everything you are, and everything you have is because of that butler."

As we learned earlier this summer with The Lone Ranger, it's hard for a film to divorce itself completely from negative pre-release publicity (though I think blaming film critics is hardly a tactic that makes any sense, considering film critics haven't been able to stop anyone from seeing Adam Sandler or Michael Bay films). The days of any press is good press are long gone, and films are often forced to fight an uphill battle just to have their film seen free from distractions caused by any negative press leading up to the film's release. Sometimes, however, such press is completely avoidable, and is often ridiculously drummed up by the head of a studio just to get his film in the headlines.

Such is the case with the absurdly titled Lee Daniels' The Butler, which came to have that title due to a nonsensical and completely avoidable legal battle between aforementioned studio head Harvey Weinstein & Warner Brothers. So did the film have any hope of standing on its own two legs, free from the distractions caused by this frivolous lawsuit? More importantly, could it overcome its own director (and namesake)'s tendency to turn virtually any film into maudlin, overwrought, melodramatic dreck? Read on to find out...


Lee Daniels' The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) a man who witnessed the rape of his mother and murder of his father while being raised on a cotton plantation in the early 1920s. He's taken in by the matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) and taught to be a servant in the house. As a teenager, he leaves the plantation and is given further instruction by Maynard (Clarence Williams III) which leads to a job at an upscale supper club in Washington DC. From there, he is given the opportunity to become a butler at The White House, during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), where he stays on as a butler for over twenty years.

His job serving the uppermost of the upper crust is juxtaposed with his home life, in particular his sometimes rocky marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his contentious relationship with his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo). Louis attends Fisk college in Tennessee and joins the Freedom Riders, trying to affect change in the pre-Civil Rights America, a country he views his father as a sellout to the ideals of. The film spans virtually every major event in the Civil Rights movement and then some, packing a walloping nine decades into 132 minutes.


And that is where the film's biggest weakness lies. It can't help but feel reductive, trying to sum up so much in one film. It suffers from wanting to give equal time to every major milestone from sit-ins to freedom bus trips to marches, riots and even the beginnings of the Black Panther movement, and it all goes by in a blur. One thing that no one can accuse the film of is not being ambitious. It's too ambitious, if such a thing is possible, trying to not just cover all of these incidents and issues, but look at them from both sides. It ends up being the Cliff Notes version of history, feeling both overstuffed and underdeveloped as a result.

One thing I am happy to report is that Lee Daniels has managed to put his more melodramatic sensibilities to rest for 132 minutes. While the earliest scenes from Cecil's childhood feel like they're going to end up in the melodramatic territory of the worst parts of Precious, he very quickly skirts them and settles in to tell the story in a very straightforward way. He doesn't totally succeed, managing to land some totally tone deaf moments such as Cecil and Gloria getting terrible news while dressed in absurd, matching disco outfits, or virtually every scene with John Cusack playing Richard Nixon with a preposterous fake nose, but for the most part, he manages to make his most wholly satisfying film yet.

The script by Danny Strong is good, if a bit lethargic. It suffers from entirely too much bloat, which is odd since he scripted the HBO political films Recount & Game Change which were both lean and engaging all the way through. This film felt, right around the ninety minute mark, as if it might never end. I was never disengaged from the story, but  it really began to feel as if he and Daniels just didn't want to jettison any of their multiple subplots, and the overall film is weaker as a result.


Whitaker is one of the most reliable actors working today, and scores here with an even-handed and strong lead performance. Much has been made of Winfrey's return to the big screen, and she does an admirable job playing an almost entirely one-note character. Oyelowo gives probably the strongest among the three leads, however, likely because his character is by far the most developed, with the strongest arc. He is excellent in the film, and his story line was much more involving than Cecil's despite being obviously relegated to the b-plot.

The actors playing the former Presidents are a bit all over the map. Williams is unusually restrained as Eisenhower, but then Liev Schreiber chews every bit of scenery in sight as LBJ. James Marsden looks nothing like JFK, but has his voice and mannerisms down to a t, and Alan Rickman looks exactly like Ronald Reagan, but makes almost no attempt to sound like him. And the less said about Cusack's Nixon, the better. The rest of the supporting cast is good as well, with Lenny Kravitz & Cuba Gooding Jr being the two standouts for me.


Lee Daniels' The Butler isn't a bad film; As I said earlier it's probably the best film Daniels has made. It mainly suffers from too much bloat and from being far too ambitious. That's not always a bad thing, but here I can't help but think of Shakespeare's Macbeth, who said: 'I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other." I would much rather watch a movie that tries to do too much and fails than one that tries to do nothing and succeeds, it's just not a film that I would watch again anytime soon, nor one that I would recommend running out to see in a theater. Better to catch it at home and watch it at your own pace, since Daniels & Strong gave the film no pace of its own.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

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