Cert: 12A / 132 mins / Dir. Lee Daniels
There's a feeling running throughout Lee Daniels™'s The Butler that you've missed some of the hype somewhere, and this is A Terribly Important Film which you've gone to watch just because you quite fancied it, and the rest of the audience might be sitting stroking their chins in solemn appreciation but you're too scared to pop your head up and look round at them because you're just thinking that it's quite good. There are some beautifully acted, written and directed scenes which even the most hard-hearted cinemagoer will struggle to be unmoved by, but they're part of a loose, fairly rambling narrative in which the titular servant is more of an observer than a protagonist.
In many ways, a more accurate title would have been The Butler Who Rolls His Eyes At The Horrible World Around Him While He Just Tries To Do His Best For His Family. Watched with that title in mind, it's entirely charming, and Forest Whitaker has been excellently cast a well-meaning yet principled everyman, in a world of constant fluctuation. The 'strong' performances come from those around him, with David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr, Colman Domingo and even Oprah Winfrey*1 all getting a seemingly bigger bite of the acting pie. Whitaker's restrained grace, entirely in keeping with his diplomatic character, is the key, of course, but quite often it seems as though the butler is only acting as a conduit through which we see a greatest-hits reel of the civil rights movement over the last sixty years. By no means a bad thing, but by no means an original one, either.
The massive ensemble-cast also does the film no great favours, as the star-spotting game almost threatens to derail the sincerity of the events we're watching*2. Some of the presidential roles work well, some don't, but none of them really have to time to bed in, due to the timespan of the film and the relative brevity of being The Most Important Man In The World. Although, in the sections where the writers didn't want to cast a president, we get actual archive footage instead of prosthetic-heavy portrayals and (very well executed) recreations of historic speeches and broadcasts. Ultimately, I get the impression it would have been a better move to cast lesser known actors in these parts, although I'm sure that the kudos of the film drew the cast like moths to a flame. Lee Daniels™'s The Butler will be on many a CV for years to come.
It's absolute Oscar-bait, of course, and I don't doubt the conviction of anyone involved, but Lee Daniels™'s The Butler never quite builds the cinematic gravity it'll need to be remembered in the long term. I also fear that there's a broad political stereotyping at play with the presidents we do see, but I don't have the background in US politics to go any further into that (then again, if I can see it without the background, maybe it's worse than I'm imagining). I'm not sure that a film as left-leaning*3 as this is going to be as universally loved as the makers would like. It's certainly preaching to the choir…
But really, Lee Daniels™? We've got Cyclops as Mr President; he gets "assassinated" and his job is taken over by Sabertooth?
And you expect me to believe there's no conspiracy there..?
"We're the future, Charles, not them…" ~ Erik Lehnsherr
It's deeper than the trailer suggests, but not too much deeper.
I think it does, but maybe not to the extent that Lee Daniels™ would like it to.
It's a DVD movie.
If it's on, but I probably won't go out of my way for it.
Am I the only one thinking it's *slightly* egotistical of director Lee Daniels to have his name included in the title of the film (IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Box Office Mojo) when he didn't write the screenplay or, presumably, orchestrate the true events in the film?
It's just me, then.
*1 Oprah who, incidentally, doesn't seem to age at all for about 30 years in-story before finally going full Back To The Future II in the 2008 segment. Truly bizarre given that the make-up department went to great lengths to adapt the visage of all the other cast members. At one point I was starting to think that her character might be a vampire…
*2 "Oh, Mr Rickman, that's great, you look the very image of dear old Ronnie. Now, can you read the lines in anything other than Alan Rickman's Voice™? Oh…"
*3 That's not a criticism, by the way. I'm very left-leaning myself, but I don't get the impression that it's a viewpoint which is going to sway The Academy at all...
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.