There are two very opposing viewpoints on display in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (from here on simply to be referred to once again as “The Butler,” for the most part at least). One is writer Danny Strong‘s take on the material he wrote about, while the other is director Lee Daniels‘ much different take. Over the course of the well over two-hour running time, about half the film is awards caliber, while about half is an unintentional comedy. This creates a real disconnect, one of many that the movie contains. Daniels and Strong are such an unlikely pair, you notice when it seems like one is suffocating the other. I’ve obviously been critical of Daniels’ film making so far to date, but this is his best work so far in my eyes, though it’s still too flawed to give a thumbs up to. Strong is about on par for what he normally puts out, though he’s definitely tried to cram too much into one film. Luckily, Forest Whitaker delivers a very fine lead performance and some of the supporting cast shines through, notably David Oyelowo. This flick wants to be an Oscar player so bad that it hurts. It may still wind up in contention, but quality wise, I didn’t see a worthy contender.
Based on a true story, this is the tale of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), a long serving White House butler. We first see him as a boy on a sharecropper farm. There, he sees a violent owner of the farm (Alex Pettyfer) rape his mother (Mariah Carey) and murder his father. That young man’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on Cecil and brings him into her home and teaches him how to wait on the family. Those skills come into play when he’s a young man and hones his craft at a hotel. Then, the White House recruits him. He works alongside Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) serving all the presidents from Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) up until Reagan (Alan Rickman). He’s good at his job and happy, but at home his life is more dramatic. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is an alcoholic, while his son Louis (Oyelowo) is becoming a civil rights crusader. Cecil isn’t one to rock the boat, leading to a falling out with his son when the latter becomes a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther, but along the way Cecil seems to impact each Commander in Chief. A single conversation or encounter with each leads Eisenhower to back school integration, John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) to support minority voting rights, Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) to wind up promoting his Great Society, and Nixon (John Cusack) to have some reflection about his misdeeds (we skip Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, so presumably Cecil was on vacation during those administrations). Reagan however, seems unmoved by Cecil when it comes to his decision regarding apartheid. Towards the end, we see the impact the election of Barack Obama has, but by then, the film already seems far too long, especially since it really wants to be a story of father and son.
acting is all over the place here. Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo deliver the best performances and have the most screen time, though their interactions are more limited than you’d like. Both suffer through bad make up (or lack thereof for the latter, who starts out as a teenager before winding up at the end as a senior citizen), but the quality of their work shines through. Whitaker isn’t flashy, but he’s the steady presence that this unwieldy flick needed. Oyelowo gets to let the sparks fly, leading to another solid turn that suggests a very bright future for him. Speaking of sparks, Oprah Winfrey gives both a very good yet very loud performance. She’s outwardly chewing the scenery, and while it’s entertaining, it seems out-of-place. Winfrey is the most dynamic of the cast, but her character is among the least interesting. As for the Presidents, no one leaves much of a mark, though to be fair none of them have much screen time. Robin Williams is the most short-changed, but James Marsden and Liev Schreiber come close. We actually spend the most time with John Cusack and Alan Rickman, both of whom are fine but unspectacular. The same goes for the aforementioned Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, while Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, and Vanessa Redgrave are essentially cameos. Other small supporting turns worth taking note of include Terrence Howard as a neighbor lusting after Gloria, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, while the cast is rounded out by Jesse Williams, Yaya Alafia, and Clarence Williams III, among many others. Still, it’s mostly about Whitaker and Oyelowo here.
Director Lee Daniels continues to make some poor decisions behind the camera, but this time he’s doing it in pursuit of a far classier final product, so his misdeeds are both easier to forgive and more noticeable. The attempts at lightness mostly fall flat, and sometimes the comedy is downright unintentional. It’s almost as if we’re watching “Lee Daniels’ Forrest Gump,” at its worst moments. Daniels does have an eye for period detail though, so credit where credit is due there. Scribe Danny Strong is more at home with a tighter focus, so this sprawling narrative often doesn’t know where to go. The film runs at least ten or fifteen minutes too long, with a final act that’s all over the place. The way Daniels and Strong integrate Obama towards the end is interesting and pleasing, but it almost seems out of a completely different movie. The film almost alternates between powerful scenes and silly ones, leading to a disconnect on my part, at least.
Overall, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is neither the rousing success nor the embarrassing failure that it could have been. What we have is a flawed awards hopeful that has the capacity to both please audiences and frustrate them in almost equal measure. I’m not recommending this flick, but I do think it’ll impress some folks more than they’d expect. At the same time, it’ll likely massively disappoint. I can only hope the rest of 2013’s contenders are a bit more consistent than this well acted and well-intentioned but ultimately flawed biopic is. The Butler succeeds perhaps a bit more than it fails, but in the end I can only muster up the enthusiasm to call it an interesting failure.
Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!