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Lee Daniels' The Butler
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by Peter Sobczynski

"America Gets Served"
1 stars

Although it only came to be as the result of a compromise to avoid a lawsuit involving infringing on the copyright of a silent short that came out back in 1916--imagine all the confusion that might have inspired--there may not be a more frighteningly accurate title to a film this year than "Lee Daniels' The Butler." After all, who else but the auteur of such deranged fare as "Precious" and "The Paperboy" would even dare to come up with such a blend of overheated melodrama, crackpot history, borderline offensiveness and some of the strangest stunt casting ever attempted in the history of cinema? Maybe John Waters but even at his most outré, even he rarely stayed as far beyond the boundaries of good sense that Daniels does here and even when he did, you could at least be comforted by the fact that he was kidding whereas Daniels actually wants us to take his beserko saga seriously. Then again, both Waters and Daniels have made films that are full of shit--one literally and one, I fear, dramatically, artistically and metaphorically.

Promiscuously adapted from a 2008 article in the Washington Post that chronicled the life of Eugene Allen, a man who rose from humble and horrifying beginnings as a sharecropper's son in the South to serve as a butler in the White House over the course of eight administrations, the film starts in 1926 as our hero, renamed Cecil Gaines (you see what I mean about a promiscuous adaptation), sees his parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey. . .yes, Mariah Carey) brutalized by the man in charge (Alex Pettyfer) and learns from the matriarch of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave. . .yes, Vanessa Redgrave) the finer points of how to be a proper servant (or as she puts it in one of the more subtle lines of dialogue, "I'm going to teach you how to be the house nigger."). After leaving the plantation, he puts those skills to use, first at an upscale North Carolina hotel and then at the famed Excelsior Hotel in Washington D.C. He unexpectedly catches the eye of a key member of the White House staff, is hired for a rare opening on their staff.

After being filled in on the details by the highest-ranking servants (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. . .yes, Lenny Kravitz and I promise to stop with the "[name]. . .yes, [name]" bit as of now) on the importance of being seen and not heard ("We have no tolerance for politics at the White House"--ho ho"), Cecil is bringing coffee to none other than President Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams. . .y--no, I promised). From that point, he finds himself an indispensable member of the household through several administrations--he tends to the medical problems of John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), reads "Madeline" to Caroline and accepts a gift from Jackie (Minka Kelly) at a time when she probably had other things on her mind, he provides aid to Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) during his struggles on the toilet, serves as a sounding board to a drunken Richard Nixon (John Cusack. . .yes, John Cusack and even you can't blame me for that one) on the night before his resignation, steps aside when the Ford and Carter administrations are represented solely by a montage and stands by quietly when Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) insists on not enacting apartheid-related sanctions against South Africa while impressing Nancy (Jane Fonda) enough to cause her to invite him to a life-changing state dinner in which he sees his life from the other side of the table at last.

Of course, it is a bit difficult to make a sweeping historical and personal drama about a man whose activities are largely confined to serving meals and so "The Butler" gives Cecil a family that can better represent those issues. Wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is initially excited about her husband's job but quickly grows to resent his long hours and unwillingness to dish or to bring her along for a tour--this leads her to hitting the booze whenever it is needed for dramatic effect and begins a relationship with her next-door neighbor (Terrence Howard). Meanwhile, older son Louis (David Ayelowo), resentful over his father's passivity, becomes politically active and manages to conveniently find himself trying to integrate a lunch counter, popping up on a Freedom Riders bus that is attacked, shooting the breeze with Martin Luther King Jr. in a certain motel room, joining the Black Panthers and finally becoming a community leader and activist with political aspirations. With the civil rights waterfront pretty much covered by his older brother, younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelly) elects to go fight in Vietnam and you can probably guess how well that goes for him.

"The Butler" was written by Danny Strong, whose previous credits include the screenplays for the docudramas "Recount" and "Game Change," two films in which he took potentially fascinating political sagas--the 2000 Bush vs. Gore electoral stalemate and John McCain's decision to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008--and rendered them virtually inert by presenting them in ways that were so trite and shallow that even those who happened to agree with their particular political slants found themselves turned off by them on artistic terms. Here, he casts his vision over a good chunk of America's tumultuous 20th century but the approach is still the same, a lunk-headed offering of names and dates that appearing to have been regurgitated straight from Wikipedia and jammed together with all the grace and élan of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." Instead on any insight, we get awkwardly staged recreations that are presented with all the nuance of a middle-school pageant and the detail of an "SNL" skit from a political off-year. After a while, the various presidents all begin to seem interchangeable and while that might have led to some interesting insights in the hands of a strong screenwriter, it just comes off here as pure laziness and disinterest.

During the scenes involving Cecil's encounters with the presidents, Daniels keeps his usually overheated cinematic approach to a minimum--the scenes featuring Cusack as a perpetually sweaty vision of Nixon are the only ones to approach his usual level of loopiness and, oddly enough, they are among the few highlights on display. Outside of the Oval Office, however, he once again lets things rip and while he may never quite hit the highs and lows of the jellyfish sequence in "The Paperboy" or virtually any scene in "Precious," The stuff involving Cecil's home life and his wife gradual estrangement from him is pure soap opera gibberish and the relationship between her and the sleazy neighbor is portrayed so nebulously that when Winfrey appeared on David Letterman to shill for the film, there was lengthy debate about whether they actually had an affair or not.

Louis' misadventures on the activist front are filled with clunky exposition ("I am not sure what to make of Malcolm X") or moments that are just too on-the-nose to be believed, especially the scene in which it is suggested that part of Martin Luther King Jr's final hours on Earth were spent informing Louis on how his father's role as a butler is more subversive than subservient. It is when these two worlds intertwine--such as a montage combining Cecil serving dinner at a White House function with Louis being abused at a lunch counter sit-in and a family dinner in which the newly radicalized son berates Dad for being an Uncle Tom and get righteously slapped by his mother in response--that the film hits its lowest points, partly because they are badly handled and partly because you can sense that Daniels has somehow convinced himself that he has transformed this utterly shallow material into something deep and profound instead of the borderline camp that it becomes in his hands.

"The Butler" has received mounds of publicity ever since its inception because of its huge supporting case of familiar faces--oftentimes playing even more familiar faces--but this aspect of the film turns out to be the least effective of them all. The problem isn't with their performances--few of them are on the screen long enough to make much of an impact one way or another and it isn't as if Robin Williams suddenly starts doing schtick as Eisenhower--as much as it is that every time someone new turns up, especially if they are playing someone famous, it proves to be hugely distracting for a few moments, unless you are somehow completely accepting of the sight of Mariah Carey as a sharecropper's wife. Since there are so many of these bits on display here, the film keeps jerking to a stop whenever the next one comes along and after a while, it just becomes exasperating. (That said, whoever came up with the idea of casting Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy deserves a medal, if only for providing us with the visual of Minka Kelly in a pillbox hat.)

In the larger roles, Whitaker admittedly disappears into the character but it has been conceived in such a one-dimensional manner that he can't really do anything with it. Likewise, Winfrey is also stuck with a silly character but she doesn't even have the acting chops to make her seem like anything other than a famous woman getting a part in a big movie solely because of her marquee value while actresses who might have made something of it, such as Angela Bassett or Viola Davis, are cast aside. The only one who makes much of an impression is David Oyelowo as Louis--his character is just as misconceived as the rest but he somehow manages to sell it through his considerable acting chops and the sheer force of his personality.

In interviews, Lee Daniels has suggested that "The Butler" was meant to be his version of "Forrest Gump" and I can think of no better statement to symbolize just how badly this film goes wrong. Although largely misunderstood by people who took its story of an amiable dope who miraculously coasts through life by toeing the line while those who stray from the path pay for their perfidies as an endorsement of that kind of blinkered mindset, it could just as easily be read as a satire on that particular outlook that made the whole thing more palatable than it might have been otherwise. "The Butler" tries to do the same thing but when dealing with a real story and real people, that approach just doesn't work and it does a great disservice to both. You would have thought that with some 40-odd credited producers working on the film, at least one of them might have picked up on that notion. None of them did and as a result, what should have been a sweeping and power chronicle of the American experience in the 20th century becomes little more than "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" with less nuance but slightly more laughs, albeit mostly of the unintentional kind.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25291&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/15/13 16:04:45
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User Comments

2/01/14 mr.mike Not entirely successful but Yaya is super hot 3 stars
12/04/13 damalc Whitaker kills it (in a good way) again 4 stars
8/29/13 Audrey Hart Nothing to refute that MLK slaying a good thing,opening way for violence-affirming panthers 1 stars
8/26/13 Little Pissed Sunshine Whitaker's lackluster compared to his best performances; all presidental roles are wooden. 3 stars
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  16-Aug-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 14-Jan-2014


  DVD: 14-Jan-2014

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