By now, you’ve likely heard all about LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, the story of an African-American man who served on the White House staff through eight administrations. In the film Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, who is loosely based off actual White House butler Eugene Allen. Of course, don’t be fooled by the marketing – reading the Washington Post article the film was initially based on, shows that the film is fictionalized to a great degree. Because of that, in some ways The Butler is like a real-life version of Forest Gump, though by no means do I mean to compare the obviously completely different protagonists (to be like Forest Gump, Cecil would have had to do something like stop the Cuban Missile Crisis by misplacing JFK’s silverware).
Whereas the real-life Eugene was born in Virginia, Cecil is a child of cotton fields in the Deep South. After a horrific childhood tragedy he slowly grows into his role as a servant and constantly impresses the right people until he is hired by the White House. However, his service to white presidents in the racially turbulent 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s puts him at odds with his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), and while we witness Cecil’s humorous encounters with numerous presidents we also witness his rocky relationship with Louis, who gradually becomes involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
If you go to see the The Butler to see caricatures of former presidents, be prepared – their appearances are limited to glorified cameos that are often played for laughs. The idea seems to be to show the presidents at their worst, so you see Eisenhower (a miscast Robin Williams) cowering over his decision to enforce Brown v. Board of Ed, Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) on the toilet, Nixon (an even more miscast John Cusack) pandering for votes and drunkenly insisting he’ll never resign, and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) trying to hide things from Nancy (Jane Fonda). Only John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) gets off without looking ridiculous, partially because Marsden plays him straighter than the other presidential actors and partially because, well, I’m sure you know how Hollywood feels about the Kennedys. I mean, you’d think a White House butler would’ve seen a mistress or two running around Kennedy’s office, right? As for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, they get a pass via a montage that zooms through late 70s/early 80s American history, which, inexplicably, ends with a lengthy shot of Princess Diana. This leads to a major all-serious tonal shift in the last half hour of the film that is far removed from Eugene Allen’s actual life.
Aside from the presidents, the film does have an impressive cast beyond the always great Whitaker. Oyelowo’s Louis is a great foil for Cecil, even if the Louis character is entirely fictional. I was also surprised by how good Cuba Gooding Jr. is as Cecil’s fellow butler Carter. Considering the last film I saw Gooding in was opposite Dolph Lundgren in the direct-to-video One in the Chamber, his funny performance here could put his career back on track. Another surprise is Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil’s oft-drunk wife Gloria. She’s a better actress than I expected, but most of her lines are delivered as sassy quips, even the lines of her dialogue that aren’t supposed to be sassy quips. She also curiously seems to age at half the rate that Cecil ages. Still, the shame of that is that there about a half-dozen far more proficient middle-aged African-American actresses who deserved the role over her and could have done something more than a two-dimensional sassy wife.
In that sense, the engaging father/son story and the more comedic upstairs/downstairs presidential comedy seem like two completely different movies. While the drawing card is obviously the presidents, it’s the far weaker part of the film. Surprisingly, it’s the fictional story of Cecil and Louis that is the most moving. It makes me wonder if the real-life Eugene Allen’s story would’ve been better told as a documentary. Director Lee Daniels went from directing films with small scope like Shadowboxer, Precious, and The Paperboy to The Butler, and I think that explains why the film’s weaker parts are the ones that meant to be more “epic” in scope. I believed in the scenes of Louis facing harsh racism as an activist. I did not believe the scenes of Cusack’s goofy Nixon handing campaign buttons to the butler staff. I’d think screenwriter Danny Strong, who wrote HBO political movies Recount and Game Change, would have had a better handle on the political material.
Despite the August release date, The Butler is the most obvious Weinstein Company Oscar bait since The King’s Speech. While being Oscar bait isn’t necessarily a bad thing (The King’s Speech alone is evidence of that), I figure you’ve seen enough Oscar bait movies to know how thick The Butler lays it on. It’s a very good movie, but it misses the “great” mark by trying to be too goofy and too preachy at the same time.
Film Review Rating 3 out of 5 : See it … It’s Good