About The Movie:
For those unaware, The Butler was renamed Lee Daniels’ The Butler in response to a lawsuit filed by Warner Bros. (which claimed the rights to the original title). The historical drama is based upon the life and times of the late Eugene Allen: an African-American who was employed as a “pantry man,” then as a butler, and eventually as the maître d’hôtel in the White House from 1952 to 1986. By the time he retired, Allen had worked for seven different U.S. presidents, during a period of time in which the American social landscape began to undergo radical changes.
Daniels’ movie stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the character inspired by the real-life Eugene Allen. Cecil starts from humble beginnings working as a child house servant on a cotton farm in the 1920s, but grows up to become a successful butler – that is, before he accepts an offer to become a member of the care-taking staff for the Oval Office. However, the long hours demanded by Cecil’s job take their toll on his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey); not to mention, Cecil’s dedication to the White House puts him at odds with his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), when the latter becomes an iron-willed participant in the American Civil Rights Movement.
What Is Good/Bad About The Movie:
Working alongside pals played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, and of course a rotating cast of actors dressed up like Presidents, Cecil accomplishes… well, he accomplishes hanging on to a well-paying job, and occasionally lobbying to his boss for equal pay for black and white employees-- his one nod toward the civil rights movement exploding around him. Years pass, White House administrations change, and we see Cecil have some kind of meaningful moment with nearly every President who comes by (Jimmy Carter, for whatever reason, is absent). The way Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong tell it, a single conversation with Cecil inspired Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to support integration, Kennedy (James Marsden) to support voting rights, Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) to promote the Great Society, and Nixon (John Cusack) to at least think for a second about all the awful things he's done. Cecil's humble, quiet presence can't quite convince Reagan (Alan Rickman) to speak out against apartheid, but hey, a single butler can't change all of history on his own.
Back at home, Cecil's job pays for a modest but comfortable house, a college education for his son Louis (Oyelowo), and a way for his wife (Oprah Winfrey) to stay home and raise the kids. In her first screen performance since 1998's Beloved, and never acting for a second like she's anything less than the most famous person in the cast. She pours herself drinks and swans around the house, donning a series of wigs as Cecil's troubled, outrageously bored wife, careening toward alcoholism while her husband is busy caring for Presidential families. It's an odd note to strike in a movie that's otherwise doggedly devoted to the story of what the poster calls how "one quiet voice can ignite a revolution," but as out of place as she may be, Oprah brings some much-needed levity-- and eventually high drama-- to the film. A subplot in which her character gives in to temptation with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) goes nowhere, but it gives Oprah the flirtatious line "What you doing with my hangers?" and God love it for that. When Cecil comes home the day Kennedy is shot, her honest-to-God response is "I'm really sorry about the President. But you and that White House can kiss my ass." How can anybody else be expected to compete with that?
Oyelowo is the only actor who does compete, giving yet another one of the focused, intense performances that's made him such a promising up-and-comer. But he and Whitaker seem to be in a completely different film than Oprah and others, whose performances are imported from a movie more like Lee Daniels efforts like Precious and The Paperboy, one willing to go gonzo for better or for worse. The Butler feels like Daniels straightening his shoulders and trying to grow up, and except for a few dramatic scenes-- attacks on the Freedom Riders, a dinner table conflict between Cecil and Louis, the D.C. riots that followed Martin Luther King's assassination-- the film operates at the same even, needlessly stuffy level. Somewhere between Oyelowo and Whitaker's natural acting and the dinner-theater craziness of John Cusack's sweaty Richard Nixon, The Butler gets torn in too many directions, a story with too much to say and almost no effective way of saying it.