Sunday, September 29, 2013

Like: The Butler

Pardon the crassness of this statement, but I sincerely wish I gave a shit about The Butler.  It's a film with a noble purpose, that boasts subtle, graceful performances from talented actors, and which approaches the Civil Rights movement from an angle I have not seen chronicled on film before.  I wanted to be able to say it movingly dramatized its important history, that it possessed a quiet power I didn't see coming.  This is, after all, a story worth telling presented at a time when we need to be reminded of all-too recent discrepancies and struggles within our country.  The Butler tries, but doesn't get there. Instead, it's another ensemble biopic produced by the Weinsteins for your Oscar-nominating consideration.  It flips through important events like its rifling through a calendar, cuts out character building in favor of presidential impersonations, and crams decades of individual and societal developments into a sparse two hours of interconnected subplots. Its sense of self-importance is second only to its crippling sense of obligation.

Lee Daniels knows how to make a drama that tackles 'issues' in an affecting way.  He did it most successfully with the tough to watch Precious and last year gave us a steaming mess of racial tensions with The Paperboy.  Those films both had style, grit, and a sense of the person at the helm. By comparison, The Butler feels like a weak attempt at playing Steven Spielberg, but without any of the raw cinematographic grandeur that made a movie like Lincoln kick.  Here, Daniels is attempting to sketch out the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an even-tempered White House butler whose career spans three decades and numerous presidents. Gaines is loosely inspired by a real life figure, and the script wisely uses his post as a point of access for multiple perspectives.  Through Gaines, we are able to get an exclusive glimpse of the Civil Rights debate from life experiences outside and inside the Oval Office, and to understand the strange role he's asked to play daily.  Cecil is made privy to every side: each president's struggles, his wife's (Oprah Winfrey) familial and social uncertainty, and his son Louis' (David Oyelowo) radicalized reactions to his father's occupational complacency.
Of course, when so much history is on the table, the film can't seem to decide what to cut and what to keep, and the sense of obligation, of desperately trying to bring in as much as possible, is immediately noticeable. Because it's not enough to have one main character, the story flits back and forth between members of the Gaines household, building unnecessary subplots as bridges for a near constant barrage of pseudo-history. Young Louis is at the center of peaceful protests, Klan attacks, and eventually the Black Panthers. His activism compels him to act drastically where his father's job requires one to remain apolitical, do his duty, and speak when asked.  Daniels succeeds in weaving together violent incidents, family parties, and White House anecdotes in a way that's largely cohesive, and it's interesting to consider how much political sway a quiet man in the White House may have had.  The Butler manages to be -at the very least- entertaining while you're watching it, but perhaps not always for the right reasons.

By its conclusion, The Butler is a cloying, rather pandering affair that ends two decades beyond what would have been a successful conclusion. The film it could have been is one that cuts things short during the Reagan administration, lets us understand that our society has a long way to go, and gives the man his due.  What happens, though, is the result of the film's confused  jumble of plots, half baked relationships, and sense of obligation.  It can't leave us to our own devices, it has to take us through to the present day and get all uplifting with big, diverse block parties drumming up votes for Obama and victory celebrations.  The emotional manipulation gets turned up to 11 here, and if that wasn't already bad enough, Daniels makes the horrendous decision to scar the film with a depressing aping of a scene Michael Haneke pulled off with ten times the sucker punch in Amour. There's a sense of a turn toward the soap opera or TV finale in the final third of the film that kills off any good will earned in the early chapters. It's as if Daniels wants us to forget that he opens The Butler with a horrifying rape (implied) and murder sequence and usher us out into the world with a vision of how happy and silly Whitaker and Winfrey look in matching 90s windbreaker suits.  I'm sorry, but...what?

So, yes: Whitaker is dignified but he's certainly been better, Winfrey does a great impression of Mo'Nique with a cigarette, and the movie is generally alright.  But, The Butler never really made me care and it never seemed to push towards anything that could be art over raw expository narrative.  Oh, and yeah, the rumors are true:  the presidential impersonations by Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, and James Marsden are all pretty damn terrible.  Seriously Weinsteins, can we back off the sappy biopic waxworks and give a chance or two to something new and different?


  1. With you all the way here. A somewhat worthy, somewhat nobel effort... that I couldn't care less about. Oh well.

    1. I'm just hoping it was released early enough in the year to get passed over come Oscar time. Potentially interesting content, with a super lackluster form...


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