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Lee Daniel’s The Butler (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 30, 2013 | Add Comments

Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniel's The Buter (2013)3 Stars

Lee Daniel’s The Butler, the recently opened historical drama, is formulaic but sometimes fascinating. The film tells the true story of Cecil Gaines (forest Whitaker), the butler of the White House for seven presidents. We start off with Cecil as an 8 year old boy working on a cotton farm. After his parents meet grisly fates, Cecil finds work as a hotel butler. But after being laid off, he gets a job as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where he witnesses landmarks in history. He talks about not going to school with Eisenhower (Robin Williams). He realizes that Kennedy (James Marsden) has been shot in 1963. He takes orders from a toilet bound Johnson (Liev Schrieber), overhears Nixon’s (John Cusack) conversations, and gets invited to a dinner by Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda). In the midst of these historic times, Cecil also copes with family issues with his alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons: radical Freedom Fighter Louis (David Oleyowo) and Vietnam soldier Charlie (Elijah Kelley).

Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniel's The Butler (2013)I was really looking forward to this film. It seemed to have a strong cast, an Oscar nominated director, and a fascinating true story! But walking out of the theater, I was disappointed. The major problem is that Cecil’s son Louis is a more sympathetic character than Cecil himself. Oleyowo is an incredible actor and this role is a fine showcase for his talents, after a bit parts in recent big films like Lincoln, The Help, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Meanwhile, Whitaker has some astonishing moments but for the most part is subtle in a way that’s plain uninteresting, unlike the commanding presence of Oleyowo. On top of that, Cecil is mad at Louis for most of the movie which makes him rather unlikable. In fact, for much of the film I was wishing I was watching Louis’ story.

Another problem is the script, which rushes through too much, too fast. Two of the presidents Cecil served (Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter) are reduced to second-long newsreel flashes on a TV screen. And each president we do see gets a few quick scenes and one memorable conversation with Cecil, at best. The movie’s dialogue is also plain lackluster, especially in the early scenes. And of course, since this is a Hollywood drama, the film is narrated by an older Cecil.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in The Butler (2013)The actors who play the presidents are a mixed bunch. For one thing, none of the actors look anything like their real life counterparts. With that in mind, some of the performances aren’t bad but almost all have at least one moment that verges on laughable. The strongest of the bunch is Alan Rickman as Reagan, who most matches his historical figure, but even he is far from a lookalike. The rest of the cast is fine but has little to do: Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, and, most prominently, Oprah Winfrey.

As you can tell, I didn’t love the film. But I didn’t hate it either. For example, the 130 minute length isn’t a problem and, with some worthy material, I wouldn’t have minded a few extra scenes. This one of the few films I’ve seen that might be a bit too short. Also, the film features about 15 “Cry Here!” scenes and most of them feature bland dialogue and heavy handed acting, but some are truly affecting. There’s also some laughs that are genuinely funny, plus a fun, retro soundtrack that works incredibly well.

Overall, The Butler works as a fun, shallow, sure fire crowd pleaser. But it doesn’t work as a thoughtful drama. Yes, it’s ahead of some “Based on a True Story” sap-fests but, despite some affecting scenes, this isn’t what you’d expect from a film with such high-caliber talent. Nonetheless, audiences have been flocking to see it and, who knows, you might love it. But I wouldn’t elect it anything more than 3 stars.

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