The year's first serving of Oscar bait has arrived on a silver platter in the form of "Lee Daniels' The Butler," a star-studded historical drama starring Forest Whitaker as an African American butler working at the White House through multiple administrations, set against the arc of the civil rights movement.
Thus far the film has earned positive, if somewhat ambivalent reviews, with critics praising the strong ensemble cast for helping to ground writer-director Daniels' melodramatic flair.
In a measured review, The Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "'The Butler' is neither as good as it might have been nor as bad as survivors of 'The Paperboy' may have feared. An ambitious and overdue attempt to create a Hollywood-style epic around the experience of black Americans in general and the civil rights movement in particular, it undercuts itself by hitting its points squarely on the nose with a 9-pound hammer."
Daniels demonstrates "contempt for subtlety, weakness for cliché and perennial determination to wring every last drop of emotion out of a situation," but he also has an "ability to create believable black middle-class situations that are so hard to come by on mainstream screens." Ultimately, "this is one significant film where less would have been a whole lot more."
Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press writes that "Daniels and company may not have made a masterpiece, but they have made a film you should see." In the title role, Whitaker delivers "a moving, grounded performance that anchors the film and blunts its riskier excesses." Likewise, Oprah Winfrey, playing his wife, "is often restrained and quite moving. To her credit, you're not thinking 'Wow, Oprah!' in every scene; that in itself is no small triumph." (On the other hand, "not all the star performances are successful," such as Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower.)
A.O. Scott of the New York Times concedes that no one who has seen the director's previous films "would mistake Lee Daniels for a realist." But his latest film "is a brilliantly truthful film on a subject that is usually shrouded in wishful thinking, mythmongering and outright denial." He continues, "Daniels has told the story of the civil rights movement in the bold colors of costume pageantry and the muted tones of domestic drama. He also throws in a few bright splashes of crazy, over-the-top theatricality, in the form of outrageous period-appropriate outfits and startling celebrity cameos, as well as dabs of raucous comedy."
The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips takes issue with "the flotilla of celebrity impersonations sailing by" — they include the aforementioned Williams, plus Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and John Cusack as Richard Nixon.
Phillips says, "It's up to the steady and astute performance by Forest Whitaker to keep 'The Butler' from caving in under its own 'Forrest Gump' sponge-of-history tendencies. This being a Daniels picture, shot every which way and going for the throat every second, grandiosity is inevitable.… So let's put it this way: Like America itself, the movie's a stimulating tangle."
New York magazine's David Edelstein finds the film "crudely powerful" and says, "You can object to the thuggish direction and the script that’s a series of signposts, but not the central idea, which is genuinely illuminating." He adds, "Daniels works in elegiac, Oscar-bait mode, but the actors find ways to stay raw."
And in the Village Voice, Stephanie Zacharek says "The Butler" "is blunt where it needs to be. Sometimes it's too didactic or sentimental. But unlike Daniels' previous pictures, 'Precious' and 'The Paperboy,' it doesn't pretend to audacious storytelling. Daniels is that rare contemporary filmmaker who's not afraid of melodrama. 'The Butler' is so old-school it feels modern: Stylistically, it could have been made 30 years ago, but its time is now."
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