Friday, August 16, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler Movie Review

Forest Whitaker & Cuba Gooding Jr. in Lee Daniels' The Butler

'Carol Came to Dinner' 

Lee Daniels deserves a great deal of credit for Lee Daniels' The Butler (I wonder if I should make Mr. Daniels' name smaller?) It's not easy placing a humble, quiet man smack dab in the middle of the White House, and building a movie around him; but Daniels does, and with often stellar results. Spanning seven presidencies, Cecil Gaines (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) sees it all, and manages to stay silent (well almost) through it all. At 2+ hours, Daniels' film has time to tell two stories... (1) The honest relationship between a father & his older son, and (2) the job that provides the means to make it all possible. The Butler seems to lean towards the flashier second story more than the former... although the finished product works well regardless.

Rotten Tomatoes Plot: LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER tells the story of a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man's life and family. Forest Whitaker stars as the butler with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and many more. Academy Award (R) nominated Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) directs and co-wrote the script with Emmy (R)-award winning Danny Strong (GAME CHANGE).

What’s Best: Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr. lead an impressive supporting cast, often overshadowing Whitaker in the process. Winfrey shows a side of herself, few probably knew existed, 'You take that trifling, low class bitch and get out of this house!' Did Oprah just say that? Her chemistry with the more subdued Whitaker is sensational, and perhaps Oscar-worthy: She even learned how to smoke... Now that's dedication to one's craft.

Meanwhile Gooding Jr. provides plenty of humor as plainspoken Carter Wilson. Gooding may be the most underrated Oscar winner of all-time; He's one of my favorite actors. His James Brown impression is sublime, and his salty speak, 'I play a mean skin flute,' and a perfectly timed, 'You black mother...' to a seated guest (Cecil) at a White House dinner are equal parts hilarious and delightful.

P.S. Hats off to Elijah Kelly as Cecil's youngest son Charlie. He brings an inordinate amount of joy to the table... literally. Not only does he provide the quote I used for the title of this review, referring to a most unwelcome dinner guest; but he's quick to disagree with older brother Louis too, 'I like Sidney Poitier Daddy.' Keep an eye out for a snappy exchange with Louis after the latter's arrest. I'll be keeping an eye on this talented actor's career.

What’s Not: Whitaker has an unrivaled physical presence, but his character lacks any pop whatsoever. This is most evident when opposite Winfrey and Gooding Jr., or the countless Presidents that parade around, eliciting unintentional laughter from the audience. Robin Williams as Ike? John Cusack as Tricky Dick? It's almost distracting.

The Butler has so much time to cover; it sometimes glances over pivotal moments (like the assassination of Martin Luther King.) Some scenes have to be trimmed, but there's more than enough "down time" they could have cut out instead.

Best Line: Cecil gets sage advice on his first day at work, from boss Mr. Fallows (Colman Domingo) 'We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.' Amen to that, if only it were true. Winfrey's 'I bet you wish I spoke French like Jack-ie,' provides one of many light-hearted moments, while teasing Cecil about a perceived crush on First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Yet another is LBJ's 'Who do you think pays the bills around here? (Pause.) Well I don't, but...' as he questions Cecil about the lights being left on in a room. Wouldn't it be swell if all Presidents watched the budget so carefully?

Overall: Lee Daniels' The Butler covers a wide swath of history, beginning with terrifying horrors on a cotton farm... before ending on the highest of notes (the Obama Inauguration.) In between, stands a myriad of events ranging from humorous (Cecil serving prune juice to a toilet-straddling LBJ) to treacherous (a particularly disturbing end to a sit-in at a Woolworth's counter.) It's a lot to balance, but Daniels does so in entertaining fashion. He even manages to make Ronald Reagan look pretty decent without letting him off the hook for other actions.

The casting of several presidents is questionable at worst, but even I had to change my mind on Cusack's selection to play Nixon. The 37th President of the U.S. always struck me as old; but believe it or not, he was Cusack's age when he ran against Kennedy in 1960. You'll love Nixon's introduction when he passes out pins to the kitchen staff, and tries to talk turkey. In fact, odds are you'll love Lee Daniels' The Butler.