Lee Daniels’ The Butler — so named not to play to the director’s ego, but to settle a ridiculous title challenge from Warner Bros. — is a good, maybe very good, but not quite great film. Yes, it has the distinct odor of Oscar-Bait, but, as Roger Ebert once noted, that complaint is a little like damning a film for trying to be good. (It’s kind of funny that we await awards season anxiously and then complain about movies that try to win awards.) Its biggest flaw lies in its PG-13 rating and the constraints it places upon Lee Daniels, a director whose greatest strength is his ability to make overheated, trashy melodramas that have a surprisingly warm heart. There’s really nobody quite like him in film today, and while there’s a lot of Daniels on display in The Butler, there is an inescapable sense of restraint here. You can see it early on in the bloodless murder of the main character’s father. You can hear it in a raunchy joke where the punchline has been cleaned up by someone dropping a pan in post-production. You can sense it around every corner, but the film — and Daniels — both endure.
As you probably know, the film recounts the fact-based but freely adapted history of a man who served as the White House butler from the Eisenhower years into the Reagan era, charting his life from his days as the son of a sharecropper in 1926 to the Obama presidency. That’s a span of time that requires considerable condensing — only a small amount of time can be given to any single episode and years have to be brushed by in a hurry. The surprise here is that neither Daniels’ direction nor Danny Strong’s screenplay feels rushed or shortchanged. I honestly think that this is one area where the “star-studded” stunt casting pays off, because the characters take on some of our notions of the performers and seem more dimensional than they are.
It’s still stunt casting, though. Folks like Vanessa Redgrave (who really delivers) and Mariah Carrey are little more than fleeting appearances. Others aren’t much more seen. Some score (Alan Rickman’s Reagan). Some don’t (John Cusack’s Nixon). Nobody is actually embarrassing. But the film belongs mostly to Forest Whitaker — followed closely by Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelow. Whitaker impresses with ease, as does Oyelow (who was also in Daniels’ The Paperboy last year). That leaves us with Winfrey, and she’s fine. Still, her presence strikes me as more distracting than the entire roster of guest bits put together. Plus, the whole subplot about her quasi-affair with Terrence Howard’s character should have been cut. On the whole, though, I can’t fault her performance.
Sometimes Daniels’ film truly soars — as in the intercutting of a sit-in protest at a Woolworth lunch counter during an elaborate White House dinner scene. Most of the protest scenes carry the power of history but are elevated by the immediacy of the filmmaking, while the immediacy of the filmmaking is elevated by the honesty of the emotions. Daniels certainly flirts with greatness, and even if he doesn’t quite get there — except on occasion — he’s made a very worthy film. Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
Playing at Carmike 10