Monday, 2 December 2013

The Butler Review (2013) Has Lee Daniels Sold Out?

After dividing critics with his previous two outings, Lee Daniels has returned with The Butler, a mainstream historical drama that features more stars than the American flag. Fans of the seedy Paperboy or the hard-hitting Precious may leave cinemas somewhat disappointed but what about the commercial crowd Daniels is aiming for?

From segregation to an African American Presidency, The Butler charts the ever evolving political landscape of America through the eyes  of Cecil Gaines, a man who worked in the White House as butler for over three decades. Throughout the eight Presidencies which Gaines serves, the impact of the political decisions he bears witness to can be felt even within his own home, creating ideological tensions that threaten to tear his family apart, creating Oscar opportunities for all.

Forest Whitaker is usually quite restrained in his performances, so he was the ideal choice for the title role; An every man who happens to find himself in extraordinary circumstances, privy to some of the most important decisions made in the last fifty years. As Gaines is told in the film, “The room must feel empty when you are in it’, and Whitaker excels with his understated approach to the character, especially in the rare moments when he is allowed to let loose a little. The Academy may ultimately overlook Whitaker in favour of more showy performances, which would be a shame, although I did get somewhat bored of watching him make cups of tea by the end of the films 132 minute long running time.

Voters may find it more difficult to forget Oprah Winfrey however, who steals the movie in her first big screen live action comeback for over a decade. As unappreciated wife Gloria Gaines, Winfrey is the glue who struggles to hold her family together, fighting as one son leaves to serve in Vietnam while another bounces from jail to jail in the fight for civil rights. Despite the affairs and the drinking, I couldn’t help but find myself liking her character more and more as the film progressed, which is a credit to Winfrey’s charisma and talent. My only issue with her though is how bloody lazy she is. Sure she’s a TV mogul who’s involved with everything from books to magazines but goddamit Oprah needs to make more films!

The rest of the cast are talented yes, but some of their blink and you’ll miss it cameos disappoint due to their brevity. After Mariah Carey’s impressive turn in Precious, I expected more from the musical starlet but both her and the legend that is Vanessa Redgrave barely share more than five minutes screen time between them. In the never ending parade of names that flit across the screen, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr and Terrence Howard stand out as particular highlights, with the latter two redeeming themselves for recent travesties such as Red Tails and Movie 43.

Much has been made of the choice to cast eighty-nine thousand different actors as each of the Presidents that served during Gaines’s employment, from Eisenhower right up to Reagan, but unfortunately, it’s a decidedly hit and miss affair. While James Marsden fits the charismatic young J.F. Kennedy surprisingly well, John Cusack phones it in as a poor Nixon impersonator and Alan Rickman looks more like a victim from The House of Wax than Ronald Reagan. Most of the prosthetics effectively transform the various Presidents and convey the passage of time for the regular characters but Daniels obviously ran out of money by the time they had to sort Rickman out. Now I’m not an accounting genius but perhaps the producers shouldn’t have bothered hiring Robin Williams to play Eisenhower for three minutes or so. Could have saved a lot of money. Just an idea guys.

Forget the ginormous cast though; what about the story? …Geek alert! It turns out that the script was written by none other than Danny Strong, the nerdy sorcerer Jonathan from the Buffy TV show who also wrote the Emmy winning political drama Game Change. Go figure. Anyway, considering how much time and ground Strong had to cover, the script does a surprisingly good job of balancing the impact of key historical events with Gaines’s own personal demons. A civil rights demonstration set in a diner was particularly powerful to watch, serving as a shocking reminder of how American citizens were so openly abused just because of the colour of their skin. Daniels also impresses during this scene, symbolically inter-cutting the demonstrators plight with Gaines serving dinner during a civilised Presidential dinner.

Despite the strengths of the script, the film is let down ultimately though by its grand scale. Some key moments feel brushed over to avoid extending the running time further and the film’s most important messages are force-fed in sound bite chunks just to cram  more Presidents in. The Butler would have benefitted from less star cameos and more scenes that highlight the harsh reality of inequality in American during the 1960s and 1970s. It’s also worth mentioning that most of the script was fictionalised, despite being based on a real life figure, but quite frankly, when isn’t that the case?  

Lee Daniels is an extremely talented film maker who continues to impress with The Butler but I feel that in an attempt to reach wider audiences, the underrated director has watered down his trademark ferocity to create a film that may earn a couple of Oscar nominations but may also lose a few fans.

In a brief appearance, Martin Luther King discusses the plight of the African American help, arguing that butlers are far more subversive than they may appear, contradicting lazy stereotypes with a dignified work ethic. It appears that Daniels may have taken this advice to heart, infiltrating mainstream cinema with a heartfelt historical drama in order to prove his commercial worth, before returning to the gritty pulp dramas we’ve come to love him for. I guess I’m ok with that, a man’s got to earn a living, but only if he doesn’t take three decades to do it.    

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