Tuesday, August 27, 2013

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER (2013)

Written by Danny Strong


Directed by Lee Daniels


Where & When: Emagine Cinemas, Canton, MI  August 18, 2013  9:45 PM



With the self-aggrandizing title "Lee Daniels' The Butler", I was afraid we were heading in to Tyler Perry territory. Although a silly legal dispute with Warner Bros. was the actual cause for this last minute title switch but Mr. Daniels seems to have made a movie that actually  has more in common with the style of the highly successful filmmaker than he may realize. The film shares in Mr. Perry's taste for crass humor, over-cooked dialogue and artificial drama. "The Butler" tells an overly simplified story of the African-American struggle in the 20th century seen through the eyes of a man who served seven U.S. Presidents in the role of their butler. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines (a fictionalized version of the real-life butler, Eugene Allen) who was taught at an early age the valuable lesson of how to properly serve the white man to make them feel at ease. By being seen but never heard, Gaines was able to provide for his family and send his children to college but had to sacrifice his self-respect and silently endure discrimination at his job.

The film starts off very heavy handed with Cecil as a little boy witnessing a brutal plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) rape his mother (played in silence by a miscast Mariah Carey) and then shooting his father (David Banner) dead for silently protesting. The mother of this monster (Vanessa Redgrave), feeling something like remorse, decides to take Cecil off the field and in to the house to work. It's here where he first learns how to serve and excels at the job.

Once he becomes a young man and fearing a similar fate like his father, Cecil decides to leave the South far behind and heads to the nation's capital. While there was no true escape from racism but better opportunities were still available in the North. A few lucky breaks leads to a prominent job, most especially for an African-American at the time, as a butler in the White House. Cecil begins his employment during the Eisenhower administration and meets fellow butlers, Carter (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz) who have been around for a while and show him the ropes. The President (Robin Williams) is struggling with the integration of public schools and while the new butler may overhear major decisions and policy changes being made, he strongly adheres to never responding nor ever repeating a single word.

Cecil's loving wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) can't understand all this silly secrecy. Regardless, she's very proud of her husband's position and the good life it provides her and their two young sons. But as the long hours keep her spouse away from home, Gloria grows less satisfied, turning to liquor (and a neighbor) to fill her lonely nights. Louis (David Oyelowo), the eldest son doesn't appreciate his father's hard work, finding the role of a domestic degrading. He gets involved at the beginning of the civil rights movement, much to his parents' disapproval, participating in peaceful sit-ins and freedom rides before moving towards the more radical side of the protests.

As the years go by, First Families arrive and depart but the servants remain to adjust to the varied needs and demands that are required to ensure their comfort. Cecil has become a respected, seasoned employee by the time President Reagan (Alan Rickman) and wife, Nancy (Jane Fonda) enter the White House. The First Lady invites Cecil and his wife to a state dinner although he's fully aware that it's more for the First Couple to have something quaint to discuss over cocktails than sincere appreciation of his long service.

Cecil Gaines' time as a dutiful servant in the White House should have been the most fascinating aspect in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" but the film has put the focus on a fairly predictable family drama. The director has given us a valuable history lesson, touching on the long painful struggle and difficult politics of the era but it's told through characters that are not fully fleshed out. The unimaginative script by Danny Strong relies far too heavily on coincidence to allow a member of the Gaines family to be up close and personal to nearly every important figure and event in American history. Even the cinematography by Andrew Dunn is flat and unmotivated.

It's amazing that Mr. Daniels has been able to lure such top talent to his last few films yet fails to utilize them properly or give any actual guidance. It's been up to the players to deliver which leads to widely varied and inconsistent performances. However, Mr. Whitaker is magnificent, as usual, and helps keep the film from completely flying off the rails. He plays a proud, complicated man only wanting his children to have a better life than he had but will completely shut them out if they don't follow his rules. It's been a long fifteen years since Oprah Winfrey had a major film role (in the underrated, "Beloved") and while there had been some concern that she wouldn't be able to be seen as just a character but this has proven to be a non-issue. The powerful media mogul is completely committed and delivers a fine performance. None of the all-star impersonations of the past presidents are particularly memorable although the best is James Marsden as Kennedy simply because he's the most obvious. The worst, by far, is John Cusack as Nixon. Only given a false bulbous nose, the first appearance by Mr. Cusack is as vice-president and while he makes a feeble attempt at the very distinctive voice but by the time the actor reappears as the thirty-seventh president, he's given up altogether. You can't really completely blame the actors as no one is on screen long enough to make any real impact.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is intended to be a sweeping historical epic, glittering with big Hollywood stars but what has been crafted is trivial, unrestrained and highly insignificant. A more accurate account of the compelling life of Eugene Allen certainly needs to be told as this does more of a disservice to his memory.