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The Butler - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Butler
Directing: B
Acting: A-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

The inherent ridiculousness that permeates much of The Butler starts with its very title, which is technically Lee Daniels' The Butler. First off, Mr. Daniels, that's not even grammatically correct. (Omitting the S after an apostrophe is only done when the word is plural. Or was the name actually Daniel and there were several of them directing this movie?) Okay, maybe I'm just a grammar nazi. But whatever the reason -- a copyright dispute with a 1916 silent short film, they say -- that title is a little overblown. It's got shades of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.

Oddly, although Daniels's Precious was actually a better film, The Butler is far less uneven, eschewing the melodramatic histrionics. That said, The Butler also falters in its transparent Oscar baiting, its Hollywood-characteristic emotional manipulation, and the broad thematic oversimplification that comes with spanning a single two-hour movie over several decades -- indeed, close to a full century.

Still, the performances are so strong, these things almost miraculously add up merely to keeping The Butler from achieving the cinematic greatness it clearly aspires to be. Instead, we have to settle for it being really good. This even in spite of the stunt casting of several presidents, almost none of which do anything more than distract the viewer: Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower; John Cusack as Richard Nixon; James Marsden as John F. Kennedy; Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson; Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Schreiber and Rickman are particularly jarring, as Schreiber gives a serviceable performance in bad makeup, and Rickman actually looks remarkably like Reagan but sounds like, well, an American Professor Snape. Rickman is joined by Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and Fonda doesn't look and sound like Nancy Reagan as she looks and sounds like Jane Fonda in Nancy Reagan's clothes.

All of these people are earnest in their portrayals, however, and you get the sense that this is an important project to all of them. There's something sort of touching about that in and of itself. The common thread among them all is Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the title character, giving a performance as good as any he's ever done. If there is any one reason to see this film -- and there are plenty, actually -- it's him.

His wife, Gloria, is played by Oprah Winfrey, in her first onscreen fictional role since Beloved in 1998. Winfrey proves yet again to be a talented actor, and it's tempting to wonder what could have come of her focusing more on acting. But then, of course, had she just been an actress, she never would have become the billionaire media mogul she is today. It's nice to see the humility in her taking supporting roles that can be at times unflattering. Gloria is a bit of an alcoholic, although her problem never gets truly down and dirty if this were a film about alcoholism.

But this is about Cecil, the man who as a boy was trained as a "house nigger" after seeing his father get shot in the head by the plantation owner who was assaulting his wife. The matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on Cecil, who then grows up and leaves the plantation as a young man in search of work. He eventually finds himself being trained as a butler, and excelling at the job, to the point of being promoted to a really nice hotel in Washington D.C. -- allowing him to live in a surprisingly nice house of his own -- and then to the White House.

Cecil then spends decades serving presidents, and as the story is told here, with the backdrop of the civil rights movement. His eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is embarrassed by his father's subservient career and heads back to the South to get more involved in the struggle for equal rights. Honestly, Louis's coincidental involvement in major real-life news events of the era are nearly Forrest Gump-ian in their frequency, from being on a bus that was bombed to knowing Martin Luther King Jr. personally and subsequently joining the Back Panther Party. But, it drives the point home effectively: Cecil and Louis are philosophically at odds.

It's difficult to describe The Butler and convincingly demonstrate the subtlety it actually has, particularly when it comes to the decades-long, and therefore extremely slow, transformation of Cecil's convictions. Clearly Cecil is in a precarious position, and it remains so in every era. That's the hook of this movie, and a delicate balance to maintain in Whitaker's perfectly understated performance. There's a lot of detail on the periphery, including more solid performances by Terrence Howard as the neighbor with whom Gloria has an affair, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the family friend who is also a fellow White House staff member. One could argue that these people clutter the story, but they are among many examples of conflicting ideas pulling Cecil in opposite directions. And all Cecil wants is to make a dignified, honest living.

In one of the few scenes featuring Dr. King, he tells Louis that service work plays an important role in black history -- that over time, it was the people in those positions who challenged the stereotype that black people were undignified and lazy, thereby making them more subversive than subservient. It almost feels telegraphed that this is what Daniels is trying to convey to his audience with this movie. Whether that's the message or not, The Butler is undeniably entertaining, and just thought provoking enough to make people feel good about themselves for seeing a "provocative" movie. It's actually not all that provocative, but it's thoughtful enough to be both enjoyably and intellectually satisfying as a night out at the movies.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker lend gravitas to THE BUTLER.

Overall: B+
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