‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ Review
'Lee Daniels' The Butler' is an eight-course meal of movies served all at once. The entree is a searing racial drama, haunting in its depiction of America's stained history. The other seven courses, delivered without grace, flatten the taste. Fine ingredients — a rousing ensemble and sporadically sharp script — can't make up for a cook's sloppy work. 'The Butler' is a mishmash of prestige qualifiers, unfit to dish out, but plated nonetheless.
Somewhere between director Lee Daniels' steamy exploitation flick 'The Paperboy' and his stripped-down, hard-knocks 'Precious' lives this story of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who gained fame for serving under five decades worth of presidents. After witnessing his father's murder and being taken in by a white matriarch to learn the ways of housework, a hopeless boy arrives on the track that will fill out the better part of his life. All-grown-up Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is a diligent worker, a husband to a rambunctious wife (Oprah Winfrey), and a father to two sons (the oldest played by David Oyelowo). He's laser-focused when it comes to the job, earning him a place on the White House staff. And he knows not to interfere with the high-profile elite around him unless a president acknowledges him with a question or request. Cecil remains a fly on the wall to the political world around him. He's a solider that fights for America on the Commander in Chief's dinner table, which makes 'The Butler' anti-drama scouring for moments of intensity.
A script by Danny Strong (HBO's 'Game Change') forces the square legacy of Cecil into the round 'Forrest Gump' hole. In just over two hours, we race through time to catch presidents at their most contemplative, along with Cecil's own familial drama and his son's storyline, the latter of which is a bumpy ride through the civil rights movement. If Cecil somehow contributed to the decisions of his presidential bosses, he would be out of line with his job description, going against everything he believed, and devolve into the "magical negro" stereotype that plagues Hollywood film. The movie wisely avoids that path, while succumbing to the seduction techniques of a great logline. 'The Butler' is sweeping in the most exhaustive way.
Being a movie of moments, there are a few that work brilliantly. Oprah chews up scenery as Cecil's wife Gloria, a no-bull alcoholic, who often reminds her husband he has a life back home, and a lady who needs loving. As Cecil's son, Oyelowo grounds the movie in necessary reality, embarking on a quest to end segregation that swings like a pendulum between civil disobedience and violent Black Panther plotting. A scene that juxtaposes Cecil setting the table for foreign diplomats with Oyelowo's Louis sitting in the white section of a diner, physically tortured by townsfolk, is jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching, and everything 'The Butler' should be. Instead, we need to see John Cusack's impression of Richard Nixon.
The clash of a father, the steadfast servant of the White House, and his son, an ambitious advocate for social change, is compelling and completely underserved by 'The Butler' and Daniels' insistence on over-the-top humor. The film is a tonal goulash -- scenes of firebombing given no room to breathe against scenes of Lyndon B. Johnson taking a crap while deciding America's fate (which, in fairness, is funny but fleeting in the hands of Liev Schreiber). Daniels pours salts on 'The Butler''s wounds by dressing his cast up in costume. A moment that should make our hearts sink, Cecil and Gloria visiting the plantation he escaped years ago, is marred by costuming. Yes, it's the '80s, but do they have to be wearing florescent track suits?
For as many wrong turns as Daniels takes while driving 'The Butler,' his all-star cast, mainly Whitaker, keeps the madcap history lesson afloat. Brief scenes with James Marsden as JFK and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan have a wonderful cadence to them. You could watch Cecil and the presidents talk for hours. No such luxury in 'The Butler,' which happily parades its players across the timeline instead of understanding what they mean to each other. Cecil Gaines is an important person, an important figure in the lives of his friends and family, and worthy of a movie. 'The Butler' confuses his literal job of serving white presidents for 50 years with what truly defined him.
'Lee Daniels' The Butler' opens in theaters on Friday, August 16.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Operation Kino.