Pardon me, this movie is not actually called The Butler, its full, official title is Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Now, nothing personal against Mr. Daniels, who seems like a lovely man, but seriously? When your last movie was The Paperboy, which did not garner much love from those who are paid to watch it and even less from those who did the paying themselves, I don’t really see how slapping your name into the title will make anyone not directly related to you come to the movie. Is it Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List? Is it Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas? Then just let it be The Butler, or, better yet, Oprah Winfrey’s The Butler, because that will actually sell a few seats. She certainly is the focal point of the poster.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is about Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who served under seven presidents. It is inspired by a true story, which means that there really are black people who are on staff in the White House, but everything else is as fictional as the day is long. The movie starts with Cecil, as an old man, sitting in the White House, then he remembers his life, so we see a movie. It starts out with little Cecil, happily romping through the cotton fields with his parents in the antebellum South. No, wait, it’s the 1920′s but it sure looks like the antebellum South. Everyone is happy and laughing, then something terrible happens, but nobody cares because they are black. Vanessa Redgrave takes him into the house to learn how to serve, then he ends up in the White House and works under seven presidents, along with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, who are there before he is hired and seem to be there after he leaves, so I don’t know why such a big deal is made about him. He marries Oprah Winfrey and has two sons, one of whom is a Black Panther (David Oyelowo) and the other goes to Vietnam (Elijah Kelley).
The presidents are all celebrities, with Robin Williams as Eisenhower, though he looks so exactly like Truman that I embarrassed myself at the screening by loudly saying that he played Truman after it was over, which is ridiculous, as I certainly know that Eisenhower came before Kennedy, but seriously, he has Truman’s squashed head. This was not the makeup department’s fault, by the way, not one bit, they can’t change the shape of his scull, and by and large, the makeup was excellent. Then came James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schrieber as Johnson, John Cusak as Nixon, Ford and Carter as themselves in television footage so that the movie isn’t five hours long, and Alan Rickman as Reagan, with Jane Fonda as Nancy. The “Spot the Celebrity President” game helps pass the time during the duller stretches.
I know you haven’t been able to tell from my professional demeanor, but I wasn’t altogether crazy about this picture. Lee Daniels hasn’t exactly got a light or deft touch with his directing hand, and the script by Danny Strong was turgid and lugubrious, not to mention repetitive. Every single new celebrity president would have at least three scenes that went exactly like this:
PRESIDENT MOVIE STAR: What are we going to do about these Negros?
OTHER ACTORS: We don’t know, Mr. President!
FOREST WHITAKER: (silently serves them).
REPEAT EVERY TEN MINUTES, AS NEEDED
If I saw that scene once I saw it ten times. I got the point after only six or seven versions of it, I really didn’t need to see it beyond the Nixon administration.
That’s what’s not so good about the movie; what is good? The performances. Everyone is terrific, Forest Whitaker is great, Oprah makes me wonder why she doesn’t act more, Cuba Gooding, Jr. gives his best performance in years, Lenny Kravitz gives the side-eye like nobody else, David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley, the sons, are wonderful, all of the presidents do excellent jobs, though the standouts were Cusak’s Nixon and Schrieber’s Johnson, even though he had a scene sitting on the toilet surrounded by beagles while shouting out orders on what to do about this whole civil rights situation, but I’ll admit, it was pretty funny. Everyone was subtle and graceful, exactly what the clunking script and direction were not. Also very good were the makeup and costumes, which did the best job of going from the ’20s to the 2000s that I have ever seen in terms of getting the period without going overboard with the clichés. No poodle skirts or leisure suits, thank goodness.
As far as full disclosure goes, I saw this film in a packed house of cynical industry professionals, including my mother, who adored every frame of the film, so take everything I say with a whole shaker-full of salt. My recommendation is to save the $12.50 and read the article that inspired the film instead, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which I found fascinating and moving exactly as much as the movie it inspired wasn’t.