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Review: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' significant but often contrived

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"Lee Daniels' 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.

Strongly acted by a cast top-lined by Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo, "The Butler" has its share of strong dramatic moments in a story inspired by the real-life career of a White House employee who served eight presidential administrations for a total of 34 years from 1952 to 1986.

Written by Danny Strong (HBO's excellent "Recount" and "Game Change"), "The Butler" cheerfully abandons specific reality, with its main characters — Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), his wife Gloria (Winfrey) and their son Louis (Oyelowo) — crafted as composites to allow a wide swath of history to fit tidily into one family's tumultuous story.

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Getting involved in this kind of general audience material is something new for the director, a lover of excess ("Precious" as well as "The Paperboy") who candidly commented in publicity material: "As a filmmaker I really had to restrain myself. It's hard to do a PG-13 movie being Lee Daniels."

Though that rating imposes some constraints, the director's contempt for subtlety, weakness for cliché and perennial determination to wring every last drop of emotion out of a situation are inevitably factors here.

Nevertheless, "The Butler" reveals Daniels' ability to create believable black middle class situations that are so hard to come by on mainstream screens. (It took the combined efforts of close to 40 different producers to finally make this film a reality.)

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But paralleling this gift, and hampering "The Butler," is Daniels' tin ear when it comes to white folks, individuals who do not have a fraction of the recognizable humanity of the black characters even in the rare moments when they're not being racists or morons or both.

Five name actors, from Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower through Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, play presidents Cecil Gaines served and not one of them is remotely believable. Movie audiences who've suffered for decades with unrealistic portrays of African Americans and Native Americans in multi-racial pictures are now being asked to do the same with Caucasians.

"The Butler" starts with a brief moment in the White House entrance hall with an aged and long-retired Gaines patiently waiting, we find out later, to meet a newly elected (but unseen) Barack Obama.

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Then the film flashes back nearly eight decades, to 1926 in Macon, Ga., to an overly schematic (to put it mildly) world where 8-year-old Cecil's happiness to be picking cotton with his father Earl (David Banner) is shattered when a drooling bigot (Alex Pettyfer) rapes his mother (Mariah Carey) and murders that father — on the same afternoon. But not before Earl has a chance to warn his son: "Don't lose your temper with the man. It's his world, we're just living in it."

The drooling bigot's mother (a thankless part for Vanessa Redgrave) turns young Cecil into a house servant. He leaves home when he's of age (no surprise) and another mentor helps him land a job at a hotel in Washington, D.C. That leads to work at the White House, where he's told by his new boss, "You never listen or react to conversation. You hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve."

Fortunately for Cecil, and the film, his African American co-workers are a gregarious lot, especially Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), and the banter they exchange both on and off the job is one of the film's strengths.

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The same is true for Cecil's strong union with his wife, which is helped by the obvious acting bond formed by the effective work of Whitaker and Winfrey. These two are especially good when Cecil's long hours at the White House cause his wife to understandably feel neglected, which leads to a prolonged flirtation with the rascal next door (the always effective Terrence Howard).

When it comes to how Cecil and all those presidents interact, "The Butler" does not achieve a similar realism. Whenever a president needs a sympathetic ear, or a presidential child like young Caroline Kennedy is in search of a patient reader, Cecil manages to be magically around.

Where "The Butler" really starts to give off mixed messages is when Cecil's son Louis comes of age. A thorn in his father's side who sees the old man as an accommodating Uncle Tom type, Louis heads off to Fisk University to begin both the study of nonviolent protest with James Lawson (Jesse Williams), and a relationship with classmate Carol Hammie (Yaya Alafia).

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Though the generation-gap clashes between father and son over how best to confront institutional prejudice — and over Sidney Poitier's acting abilities — are another of the film's strong points, the plotting here becomes too contrived to be effective.

"The Butler" turns poor Louis into a kind of African American Zelig, present at every key civil rights era turning point. That's Louis sitting in at a Woolworth's lunch counter, getting fire-bombed on a Freedom Rider bus, getting assaulted by a fire hose in Birmingham, being with Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis just before he died, donning a beret and becoming a Black Panther as Carol's hair morphs into an Angela Davis afro.

It's not that all this stuff didn't happen (see Stanley Nelson's excellent Emmy-winning doc "Freedom Riders" to get the full story), but it strains credulity to have it all happen to one person, and all in the context of a strained father-son relationship.

Daniels' pulp instincts do lead to vivid sequences such as the intercutting of a White House dinner with that Woolworth sit-in, but this is one significant film where less would have been a whole lot more.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking

Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

Playing: In general release 

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