MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, Robert Aberdeen, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Colin Walker, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Alex Pettyfer, David Banner, Mariah Carey, Yaya DaCosta, Vanessa Redgrave, Clarence Williams III/ Runtime: 132 minutes
I would just like to say this right off the bat before I go any further: flaws aside, I did really like this movie and I really do appreciate just what this film is trying to accomplish. With that being said, it saddens me greatly to tell you dear reader that there is just way too much of that pesky devil inconsistency in this film for this film to be labeled as a true “masterpiece of cinema” that a movie of this scope, narrative, and potent performances truly should be called. Indeed this is a movie that manages to acquire just as much media attention for what it was entitled as much as what was featured in the film’s 132 minute runtime. Indeed if anything this film would’ve worked just as well if the studio had retitled it “Nice Try”. I mean don’t get me wrong dear reader there is a fair amount to respect about this film including the narrative, some of the performances, and the fact that from a technical perspective it is truly a masterclass in how to put a film together. At the same time though, there is also a fair amount to cry foul should you choose to do so including a quite loose leash on history, head-scratch worthy casting on several roles that honestly deserved more casting consideration, and a vibe by the conclusion that this is a film which is more a victory lap for Obama the man than it is a victory lap for the ultimate triumph of the civil rights movement and an emotional reminder of just where we have been as a country and what has come from this very distinct and respectable odyssey which was the point that the filmmaker was trying to make, but nearly loses under an finale that nearly borders on excess. Yes this film is enjoyable and enlightening to a degree, but it could’ve been something truly special had it not been so gosh darn uneven and inconsistent throughout.
The plot is as follows: The Butler tells us the story of a man by the name of Cecil Gaines. Cecil, we soon learn, is a man who, when he was younger, had to horrifically witness the rape of his mom and the death of his dad on a cotton plantation in Georgia only to then shortly thereafter be moved to the house in order to “better serve” the family that all but annihilated his own. Years later, we watch as an adult Cecil leaves his still trauma-stricken mother behind to forge his own path in the world and manages to do so professionally courtesy of finding a job in the hotel service industry in Washington DC and personally in the form of meeting and wedding a woman by the name of Gloria. Soon though we will see Cecil’s life change forever when he gets a phone call that offers him the chance to interview for a butler position at no less than the White House. Of course it should be no spoiler to learn that Cecil is hired and from President Eisenhower on has the chance to work there for the next several decades as he witnesses the presidencies of such men as Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Yet while Cecil does his best from within to wake up the men in the highest office in the land to the plight of those on the outside, his oldest boy Louis decides to go down a different path and, against the wishes of his father, becomes a radical activist tied to the Black Panthers. Thus can Cecil make his fracturing family whole again and, along the way, show the difference one man can make simply by being in the room at the right time? I guess you’ll have to see for yourself dear reader…..
Now The Butler is a film which manages to showcase for us quite the riveting saga of a life that manages to find purpose through serving other people. Indeed it is a narrative which, at the heart of it, does seem more like the classic “rags to riches” kind of narrative as we see that slavery is the rep for the first category and getting a chance to see history occur up close is the rep for the latter. Indeed this film is in many respects the poster child for an American tale in many respects as not only does it showcase some of the darker moments in America’s past, but it also promotes working hard, dedicating yourself to something, respect for self and for the people around you, and dignity as way to not only discover a purpose, but also who you are meant to be on the path to stability on a personal level. Indeed even though the Gaines family never comes into a financial windfall, Cecil’s job does give him a greater comprehension for just how the world around him functions even though he has in his personal life sheltered himself away from those problems while his sons engage it in combat. To that end, the movie does often offer us a pair of contrasting story arcs involving both Luis’ up close and personal involvement in the civil rights movement and Cecil doing his job for the highest office in the land. Indeed even though neither takes away from Cecil’s devotion to his job or elevates the pain and anguish that Louis goes through, they still manage to quite potently showcase 2 contrasting sides to the history of America during one of its more chaotic periods of time.
Yet it is perhaps a bit ironic then to note that it is this film’s very portrayal of American history which also manages to function as a significant part of why this film doesn’t work as well as it should. Yes a lot of the inaccuracies from a historical standpoint in this film, including changing up the main character’s name, can be found on the Internet if you would like to know more, but at least the film does conjure up a solid showcase for the times both spent in the White House and on the street in “real America”. It is the casting of historical figures that this film fumbles the ball terribly however to the point that a lot of them simply feel more like caricatures than anything else. I mean when you have a group of quite talented and iconic thespians including Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman all playing various Presidents you would have hope that they’d be good, but in fact the majority of them are just simply fair despite the fact that some don’t even look like their historical counterpart and others aren’t even able to nail the heart and spirit of the men that they are playing. Of course, in fairness to the actors themselves, it also doesn’t help when the Presidents are only showcased in brief moments that only help to serve the narrative in the most miniscule way possible included Nixon drunkenly ranting about Watergate or a cantankerous Johnson’s time spent on the porcelain god. Indeed out of the group mentioned above, it is Rickman astonishingly who fares best in showcasing the essence of Reagan and his performance is also aided by a delightful yet also surprising (if you know your history) performance from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan who, in her 15-20 minutes of screen time, not only looks like Nancy, but also extolls the kindness and sweetness that she was known for possessing in droves. In fact, out of everyone playing a former President, I can honestly say that only James Marsden’s portrayal of John Kennedy really seems to be able to give his role the gravitas that this particular President needs. Indeed Marsden manages to showcase the charm, the innocence, but most crucially the youthful energy of Kennedy remarkably well. Yes it’s not exactly a lid-tight performance, but it still is most certainly a standout amongst a pack of dubiously cast former Presidents of the United States that are, in their own ways, some of the most iconic that this country ever had.
Thankfully, this movies does work in the areas where it needed to do so the most. Indeed this is most evident in the lead role as we see iconic thespian Forrest Whitaker manages to give us a performance that is perhaps one of the finest that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing him deliver. Indeed through the combined power of both terrific makeup effects as well as an immersive yet organic comprehension of just who this character is and both where he fits in the world as well as how he moves through it, Whitaker manages to become the character and never once abandons him to the point that even when he has scenes with his family that are more personal and just as integral to the narrative he still delivers a performance that is a true home run through and through. Heck, Whitaker is so good in this role that the performance he gives actually helps to strengthen a subtle point the story tries to state which consists of the fact that Cecil is ironically, in many respects, a better servant of the public than a lot of the people he serves since he manages to not only stay true to who he is, but he also never forgets who he is, where he has come from, or just where in fact he may be going. A fact that honestly in no moment of the film is showcased more wonderfully than in a moment where we see Cecil engage in a late at night chat inside the Oval Office with none other than President Nixon. Indeed if there is any reason that this movie manages to be as wonderful as it is then I feel a lot of it can be put firmly on the shoulders of the gifted thespian Forrest Whitaker and his truly remarkable lead performance.
All in all The Butler is a film which sadly misses an opportunity to be a film that is genuinely great yet at the same time still manages to become quite the solid movie that a student of United States history will most likely enjoy though come up short of straight up loving. Indeed there is but a handful of mainstream films which, as of late, I have been as divided on as I am in regards to this movie. I mean on one side of the coin, this film does tell a riveting, crucial, moving, and quite emotional saga of a man’s ascension from being a nobody to getting to be a front and center and respected witness to a lot of the major events in the 20th century history in the U.S. starting with the beginnings of the civil rights movement and concluding with Obama being elected into office. On the other side of the coin however, this film is full of actors that either don’t fit their parts at all or just enough to work on a superficial level and nothing more, slightly head-scratching in regards to its authenticity historical material, and a conclusion that is yes quite moving, but also overdone thus coming close to annihilating just what it is trying to get across to you dear viewer. Thus is this movie a solid effort? Yes. Could it have been better though? Absolutely. I mean as long as you go into the film knowing that then that truly is all that matters dear reader, but ultimately I still leave it up to each and every one of you to determine whether this film is right for you. On a scale of 1-5 I give Lee Daniels’ The Butler a solid 3.5 out of 5.