“Lee Daniel’s The Butler”
Laura Ziskin Productions
2 hours, 12 minutes
As a film critic, I’m used to being at odds with public opinion. While most people want little more than an entertaining evening out, and to know they didn’t waste their ten bucks on a ticket, critics are tasked with the job of evaluating a film from a whole host of different angles and placing it in some sort of relevant position in the pantheon of cinema. Mostly, though, a critic just hopes that he or she can think of something interesting to write. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that film critics are often more, well, critical, of most movies than the general public is. I’m used to that.
What I’m not used to is when my opinion seems to be out of step with a vast number of other critics, as well as the public, which is the case with this week’s entry, “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” a ham-handed, trainwreck of a film about the history of civil rights, whose cumbersome title - the result of a legal battle with Warner Brothers, turns out to be the least of its problems.
I can see why some people might like this movie. Personally, I think the idea is brilliant. Very loosely based on the life story of actual White House butler Eugene Allen, the film chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines, played admirably by Forrest Whitaker, as he escapes the cruel life of a day laborer in the South in the 1920’s, to find work as a house servant, moving quickly through the ranks to eventually serve as head butler at the White House due to his powerful work ethic, his attention to detail, and his refusal to involve himself politically. Working for the President from Eisenhower all the way through Reagan, Gaines is privy and present for almost every major event of the Civil Rights era. It is here, though, that the narrative begins to go awry somewhat. Watching the painful growing pains of the nation through the eyes of a man who was both on the inside and outside of that particular struggle is a great concept. In execution, however, it feels more like a low rent “Forrest Gump,” where a sincere effort at serious drama is sabotaged by a misguided attempt to make the character too important, too central, and as a result just comes off as silly. Add to that some of the most bizarre stunt casting I’ve ever seen, and you have a bad movie made worse by the terrible missed opportunity.
The film is problematic throughout, but the issues really begin to make themselves known when we actually get to the White House. Up until that point the story is about a young man who goes through hell to make it out of the fields and into a life of relative stability and stature. Gaines is eventually tapped to work at the White House, and makes the move eagerly. When we are introduced to Cecil’s co-workers, however, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, the issues with the script become evident. The idea is to show the servants have two faces, one they show to each other, and one they show to their employers. In order to illustrate the relaxed atmosphere of the kitchen, we meet Gooding Jr. telling, apropos of nothing, an extremely filthy joke, only to have crashing pots and pans obscure the punch line. That’s less “Lincoln” and more “Laugh-In.” Most of the conversations that occur between the characters feel forced, almost as though they are being ad-libbed by people who aren’t that good at improvisation. Plot-wise, the script has a major plausibility issue, as well. Not only are we asked to believe that Cecil’s mere presence was enough to help guide the movement on Civil Rights legislation, but that his son Louis, a college student by the time Cecil reaches the White House, was present at nearly every important Civil Rights event and a part of every motif of the decade, up to and including being present in the hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr. on the day he was shot as well as becoming a founding member of the Black Panthers. Implausible as it was, the story Louis Gaines includes some of the best parts of the movie, including scenes where students refuse to sit in the colored section at the lunch counter and attacks on the Freedom Rider buses. It makes me sad that this film lost its way so completely, considering a few excellent scenes.
A huge problem, in my opinion, is the cast. At some point director Lee Daniels or some hotshot producer got the idea that it would be cool to have each of the presidents played by a different famous actor. Thus, as we are introduced to Eisenhower on the eve of his sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to desegregate the high school, we realize that the president is being played by Robin Williams. Not badly, necessarily, but it’s immediately obvious I’m watching Robin Williams, and I was taken completely out of the story. At least Williams didn’t attempt to be showy. John Cusak as Nixon and Liev Shrieber as Johnson are mere caricatures - less performances than a series of facile and silly cliches. James Marsden, as Kennedy, felt like a little kid dressed in his dad’s suit, and Alan Rickman, was Professor Snape in a Reagan wig. Perhaps wisely, though odd for a movie with so little restraint, there is no actor playing Ford or Carter, their time on screen devoted to news clips and the like.
Restraint is definitely an issue in “The Butler.” At no time does the director shy from hitting you over the head with a concept. There’s a touching, pivotal scene that sees Gaines and his wife, played with marginal success by Oprah Winfrey, returning to the scene of his turbulent childhood, in an attempt to make peace with the past. This could have been a good scene had the costume department not decided that no one will possibly be able to tell that it’s the eighties if the characters aren’t wearing day-glo track suits. Again, pulls you right out of the movie.
These are but a few examples, but the bigger problem is that the entire production, the whole of these myriad problems, feels amateur. Forrest Whitaker is a great actor and he has some really good scenes, as does his son, played by David Oyelowo, but these scenes feel almost out of place amid the broad, low brow, and fairly obvious tone of the rest of the film. And to top it off, the movie is twenty minutes too long, the result of which is that by the time a pivotal character dies, a scene that could have been a tear jerker had it not been broadcast from a mile away, my group was shifting in our seats and stifling laughs. “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” is a movie that you feel like you should see, and having seen it, should like it. “This is important and demanding of your respect,” the film seems to say. The Civil Rights Movement was important and demanding of respect, and on this anniversary, we do well to remember it. This movie, on the other hand? Not so much. Grade: D+
“Lee Daniel’s The Butler” is rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lies in Nikiski.