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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Movie Review - Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, and Mariah Carey
Directed by Lee Daniels

Can someone please explain to me how Lee Daniels' The Butler was ever in the running for any category at the Oscars?  With an absolutely horrendous script by Danny Strong, pompously self-important direction by Lee Daniels, and overacting out the wazoo by nearly everyone involved, it's mind-boggling to me that people actually thought this movie was good in any way.  Incredibly heavy-handed in its way of trying to pigeonhole seemingly every important civil rights moment from the 1950s-80s into a two hour film, the film plays like a low-rent version of Forrest Gump as famous Hollywood celebrity after famous Hollywood celebrity pops up playing famous political figure after famous political figure.  And then, rather obnoxiously, the film ends with the triumphant crowning of Barack Obama as President signifying that "hope and change" have come and all is right in the world.  The final ten minutes of this movie had me so aggravated that they soured the entirety of the rest of the film (which, as stated, really wasn't that good to begin with).


Based on a true story (although changed DRASTICALLY in order to make things much more dramatic), The Butler centers around Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who escaped Southern slavery in the 1920s and became well known around Washington, D.C., as a fantastic server/butler in local bars and lounges around the big city.  After catching the eye of someone who worked in the White House, Gaines snags a job as a butler where he stays on to serve eight presidents.  The film attempts to balance Gaines' workplace with his family life, but the transitions between the two are always awkward and oftentimes incredibly heavyhanded.  For, you see, while his professional life is moving along swimmingly, his home life leaves much to be desired.  His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is tired of her husband putting his focus on his job and abandoning her and their two sons so she fills the void she feels with alcohol and another man (Terrence Howard).  Meanwhile, Gaines' older son (David Oyelowo) is heading to college where he finds himself becoming involved in Woolworth counter sit-ins, Freedom Bus Riders, Martin Luther King's assassination, the Black Panthers, and rallies to free Nelson Mandela.  All this stuff -- and this son never even existed.  That's right.  It's simply the screenwriter's ploy to hammer home what they believe to be significant moments in the Civil Rights Movement.  There's certainly no denying each of these events' importance.  However, none of these moments are ever given anything more than snippets of attention.  Giving each of these pivotal aspects of the movement such short shrift is a disservice.

On Oscar morning, everyone was shocked that Oprah didn't garner a nomination, but her attempt at halfway channeling Mo'Nique's intense performance from Precious was laughable.  Forest Whitaker is as flat as could be, exuding an overwhelming sense of blandness.  Each and every presidential figure plays more like a really good impressionist you'd see on the Vegas strip than a person.  Lee Daniels really failed to reel in a good performance from anyone with the exception of Lenny Kravitz as another butler in the White House and David Oyelowo who, despite the horribly written role as Gaines' older son, does try his best with his ridiculous part.

Lee Daniels' The Butler begins with Cecil Gaines as a young child working on a cotton plantation and the film's first ten minutes echo similar sentiments espoused in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.  However, there's simply no comparison and to have even placed The Butler in the same ballpark as 12 Years a Slave in the lead-up to awards season is an indignation that I'm trying to right with this review.

The RyMickey Rating:  D


  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnFOtp9YW_Y

    I prefer the Onion's review of it.
    I won't comment on the fact that you got angry that they posed Obama as something hopeful in a movie about racial issues. It's the least of this movie's problems.

  2. That Onion review is pretty spot on. It screams "IMPORTANT" every chance it gets, but it's so incredibly "surface" in anything that it discusses that its importance is diminished almost from the start. I mean, look at the slavery scene at the very beginning and compare that to "12 Years a Slave," and you'll find yourself laughing at Alex Pettyfer attempting to be "tough" rather than being moved by the scene.

    My problem with the end which I didn't really state all that eloquently-- shoving politics aside for a minute (slightly) -- is that it's so blatantly cheap that it's almost insulting. There were other ways to have presented the Obama idea if you wanted to go that route (although I don't think the movie needed to). Steve mentioned having Cecil sitting in the White House similar to how it ends now and having him get up to meet the President and seeing a handshake between Cecil and Obama and ending on that note. It still would've been incredibly cheesy, but it would've felt less lazy. As it stand now, it's quite possibly one of the least inventive finales to a movie in a long time.

  3. Okay, I agree about the END end part at the White House. It is pretty awful. I But I liked the election scene. It didn't feel made up like most of the movie.