Daniels’ movie rarely adds up to anything more than a bare CliffNotes of history.Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name was forced into the title due to some stupid lawsuit supposedly about the trademark of a short called The Butler from 1916, which I guess was really about studio execs feuding over Hobbit profits or something) is movie with a promising premise but ultimately no point. The life of Eugene Allen, a black butler who served at the White House from 1957 to 1986, sounds like it could make for an unusual insider’s look at Washington, a powerful view of the Civil Rights Movement, a poignant character study of a worker who’d otherwise be overlooked. Too bad Daniels’ movie is unfocused, cheaply manipulative, and often boring, rarely adding up to anything more than a bare CliffNotes of history.There’s a reason most modern biopics tend to focus on a specific period of their subject’s life.The scope of a whole life is difficult to dramatize. There’s a reason most modern biopics tend to focus on a specific period of their subject’s life as opposed to the whole. I’m not sure if The Butler even counts as a biopic, though; despite its big “Based on a True Story” title card (awkwardly inserted already 5 or so minutes into the film), the life of Forest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines doesn’t seem to much resemble that of the real Eugene Allen. In the movie, Cecil has two sons, a radical activist and a Vietnam enlistee who gets killed in action. In real life, these two sons were the same person, except they didn’t die in the war. Such simplification of what could have been a more complex character, seemingly for the sake of easy compartmentalization and an unearned attempt at a tearjerker death, exemplifies this movie’s dumbed-down approach. More “Filmmaking and US History for Dummies” bits: a script that demands Whitaker describe in voice-over everything that’s very clearly happening to him, and constant subtitles of similar redundancy that need to clarify who the president was in each year, even though they’re usually talking about or to the president in the exact scenes these subtitles pop up. The star-studded cast fails to make any impression.As for the presidents themselves, the star-studded cast fails to make any impression or provide significant insight into any of the presidencies, with one stand-out exception. It’s too little and too late to save the movie, but the Reagan administration scenes, with Alan Rickman as President and Jane Fonda as First Lady, are great. I’d watch Rickman in anything, and here he captures both Reagan’s personable charms and his toxic politics, all with a sense of humor and dramatic subtlety that the movie could have used more of. Somebody give this man an Oscar nomination already! It helps that these scenes are the ones where Cecil is finally developing as a character and becoming an active as opposed to passive participant in the action (I’m thinking his son, with a bigger character arc, would have made a better focal character). The movie could have ended with the ’80s scenes and it would have just enough of an arc to maybe forgive some of the problems, but then the movie just keeps going, with no purpose other than to wring out more sentimentality, this time with the Obama election (Boondocks did it better (video NSFW)) and yet another death. There are no stunning revelatory lead performances to distract from the movie’s shallowness.You have to wonder what this movie would have looked like if it, as initially planned, was directed by Spike Lee. It’s hard to say a filmmaker as inconsistent as Lee would have made a better film, but I’m damned sure he’d have made a more interesting one. Instead we got Daniels, a director who won a ton of acclaim for Precious but in my opinion mostly got lucky by having two incredible performances redeem what was otherwise a pretty shallow and incredibly icky film. The Butler‘s not icky, but despite the best efforts of Whitaker and company, there are no stunning revelatory lead peformances on par with Gabourey Sidibe or Mo’nique in Precious to distract from the movie’s shallowness. The Weinstein Company was hoping this movie would be a big Oscar player, but outside of maybe Rickman, it’ll have to settle for a legacy of being popped in by bored high school social studies substitutes in lieu of a lesson plan.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens nationwide August 16th.