“Lee Daniels' The Butler” is a film very much like 1994's “Forrest Gump.” This is not to say that the main character has below-average intelligence or that the film is going to win an Academy Award that rightfully belongs to “Pulp Fiction.”
Rather, the film follows a character as he experiences American history of the 1950s through ‘80s.
The character, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), is a black butler at the obviously white-dominated White House. Try as he does to remain a discreet presence, he can't help but be affected by the social changes that are going on all around him. He might even be affecting the changes more than he knows.
The film follows three major storylines: Gaines' career as a butler, the journey of his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), as an activist for civil rights, and the family drama that includes both of them.
Aside from a few commercially appealing aspects of the family drama, it's the White House parts that people are coming to see. And it's no wonder they're curious given some of the gimmicky casting choices. You've got Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan.
My quick thoughts, respectively: I can take Williams seriously in the occasional dramatic role but not as a historical figure. Marsden, being a former fashion model, will convince viewers that Kennedy was the first toothpick elected President. Schreiber is so unrecognizable that when his name came up in the end credits, I wondered which role he played. Cusack doesn't look or sound anything like Nixon, and his obviously fake nose doesn't help. And finally, what was Lee Daniels thinking when he cast Rickman, who has one of the most distinctive British voices I know, to play All-American Ronald Reagan?
The scenes with the Presidents are actually the least effective. By no means are they totally ineffective, but they're too concerned with showcasing the big name actors in the important roles with the detailed sets (I'm excluding scenes set in staff areas where Cecil can yuk it up with his friends played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz). They feel like expensive educational vignettes that spent big money on everything expect a decent Nixon nose for Cusack. Plus everyone has to be so polite at the White House; it's an unwelcome break from the brutal honesty of the rest of the film.
That's right, “Lee Daniels' The Butler” is best when Cecil isn't on-duty as a butler. Then he and his family can grapple with more serious issues. Cecil drifts apart from his wife (Oprah Winfrey), who takes up drinking and has an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard). He has many heated arguments with Louis over the latter's participation in peaceful-yet-dangerous protests when he follows Martin Luther King Jr. and his more hostile behavior when he follows Malcolm X. Then there are the protests themselves, and those scenes are riveting. And this is all before Cecil's youngest son (Elijah Kelley) goes off to Vietnam. These scenes serve up the kind of emotional punch that wins Oscars.
Occasionally, the film will throw in one of those awkward scenes where the President is holding a meeting about a major issue and Cecil will be in the room and then the President will turn to him and ask him his opinion. Cecil then gives a non-answer because he's been ordered to remain politically impartial and the President takes a good long look at him and wonders what decision will be best for his friend Cecil.
I'm not a fan of these scenes because they try to forge a relationship between Cecil and the political and historical aspects of the story that just isn't there. As a historical drama, “Lee Daniels' The Butler” is average at best. As a human drama, it is much better.
Three stars out of five.
The film is rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. Its running time is 132 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.