"Lee Daniels' The Butler" Loses Itself In Third Act

Loosely based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a longtime White House maître d’, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is one of the year’s bumpier cinematic rides, equal parts moving and insipid. Despite working with an inherently interesting lead character, writer Danny Strong is unable to wring a cogent narrative from it and the result is an unfailingly episodic picture whose reach far exceeds its grasp. The breadth of the subject matter tirelessly works against director Lee Daniels and company, leading to some inevitably goofy casting choices and unfortunate make-up work.

Forest Whitaker, seemingly rescued from a recent spate of straight-to-DVD movies, plays Cecil Gaines, the headlining butler. The film opens on an elderly Cecil, seated in the White House, followed by a look back at Cecil’s youth. Having grown up in the hot Virginian cotton fields where he saw his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and his father (David Banner) shot dead, Cecil takes to working indoors, first for the family that “employed” his parents and eventually at a Washington D.C. area hotel.

The screenplay’s choppiness first rears its head when the film skips forward 20 years in the blink of an eye. A now middle-aged Cecil – he has a wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons – accepts a job at the White House. It’s 1957 – the middle of the Eisenhower administration – and racial tensions are beginning to heat up, particularly in the south. Despite the turmoil, Cecil is mostly apolitical, preferring to keep his head down and go about his work, the same strategy that landed him his job in the first place.

Cecil lives a mostly quiet private life inhabited by a vibrant cast of characters, including his feisty co-workers (Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr.), a slippery neighbor (Terrence Howard), and his two sons, Louis and Charlie. A surprisingly large piece of the narrative is devoted to Louis (played in adulthood by David Oyelowo) and his strained relationship with his parents. His transformation from Freedom Rider to Black Panther to Congressional hopeful is the film’s most compelling storyline, but from a little research the character seems to be a total fabrication, even if his experiences are not. Nevertheless, Oyelowo does excellent work in the role, many of his scenes emerging as the heart and soul of the film.

While Cecil’s personal life makes for some reasonably strong drama, a large percentage of scenes set in the White House fall flat. What makes our protagonist’s life story so interesting is that he was a firsthand witness of Presidential decision-making that literally changed the world. And while the character’s place in history is well deserved, his ability to carry an entire film just by observing his surroundings is limited. Even more problematically, the five actors that play Commanders-in-chief all take vastly different approaches to their characters, with few of those choices paying off.

Robin Williams’ take on Dwight D. Eisenhower is unimaginative, adding up to little more than Robin Williams with a wispy comb over. Liev Schrieber’s Lyndon Johnson is caked in so make-up that it’s hard to make heads or tails of the performance, while John Cusack’s portrayal of Nixon is non-existent other than a slight vocal lilt. Alan Rickman looks the part as Ronald Reagan, but his interpretation comes off more like an impression than a performance. It’s James Marsden as John F. Kennedy who fares the best of the bunch, looking just enough like a Kennedy to be convincing while keeping his Boston accent as subtle as possible.

The high points of “The Butler” are undeniable, most notably a harrowing sequence in which a bus is torched by the Ku Klux Klan. But for every success there’s a failure, like a montage that clumsily cross-cuts between a diner sit-in and a White House dinner. Ultimately, the picture is too ambitious for its own good, unable to reconcile the difficulties of aging its characters by decades with the need for a structurally sound narrative. Until the final reel, it’s not entirely clear what Daniels and Strong are trying to say about their protagonist, but by the time the film feebly uses Election Day 2008 as a prop for easy applause and transparent tear-jerking, its aim comes into focus.

“The Butler” strives to make a broad political statement about the pitfalls of racism without doing any heavy lifting of its own. It’s at its best when it’s simply – and often breathtakingly – recounting the difficulties faced by so many regular Americans that just happened to be black, but it comes up short when forced to rely on its own creative savvy. In its manic search for a shortcut to a bigger, more glamorous finish line, it just ends up tripping over itself.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: August 16, 2013
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Danny Strong
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and disturbing image, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)