This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad
Somewhere in the vast middle of LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER, a movie about a White House butler who served US Presidents from the Eisenhowers through the Reagans, there's a terrific agitated scene in which we leave the butler behind to check in on his wife Gloria. Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and Howard (Terrence Howard), the neighbor she's turned to from loneliness, argue on a couch. Howard is trying to sweet-talk his way back into her bed. Gloria, guilt-ridden, distracts herself with chain smoking, occasionally side-eyeing him as if he were a buzzing nuisance and, damn, where is her fly swatter? Slick Howard begins spinning two of her clothes hangers in the air to visualize their parallel worlds. Gloria reacts with extreme annoyance to the comic pleasure of the audience -- Oprah gets one laugh after another, all of them blessedly intentional, in her rousing return to the big screen.
It's a weird but lively domestic hothouse scene that feels, at first, largely divorced from the movie containing it, a somewhat duller "greatest hits" tour of America's civil rights journey. But in its own peculiar way it's also the movie's key scene. [more...]
We're all of us living in parallel worlds that never quite synch up. That's definitely the case with Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the title man servant and his own family. His wife Gloria loves him but resents that he's so married to his career. His ambitious son, Louis (rising star David Oyelowo), is ashamed of his father's domesticity and apolitical conduct.
What's more, Cecil is living and profiting from the White Man's world but he's never truly a part of it, valued most for his invisibility in a room. It's an interesting predicament and one that rings true and resonant even in the midst of the movie's often awkward and inauthentic recreations of past administrations. The parade of Presidents and their First Ladies sometimes feels like a series of SNL sketches with famous actors guest starring as American royalty. Nevertheless this 'outside looking in' quality resonates and hurts.
Shortly before its release The Movie Formerly Known as "The Butler" was under legal attack for its title and was eventually forced to change its name so that audiences wouldn't confuse it with the 1916 Warner Bros silent short named The Butler. You know, how people are always mixing up those old one reelers with big messy talkies starring Oprah Winfrey!!! But the strangest thing about the new title is that the new movie might be the least personal of any of Lee Daniels' pictures.
Lee Daniels' first three films (Shadowboxer, Precious and The Paperboy) were all recognizably the work of the same man. Though Precious was a major breakthrough and Oscar success he's also been the target of consistent scorn for the hot mess qualities of his filmmaking. The knives really came out for The Paperboy (reviewed), his slutty gothic follow up. Film critics tend to object to his movies for their crude organization, broad thematic content, near-constant prurience, and oddball casting. Though all of these complaints are accurate assessments, they miss the point in trying to make one. Without the odd, crude, horny, insanity a Lee Daniels movie wouldn't feel like a Lee Daniels movie and it wouldn't be so damn vivid. In daring to be unwatchable they're sometimes supremely watchable!
We have more than enough movies that are pleasant and "well made" which evaporate a week after you see them. Whatever the director's drawbacks (I personally wish his movies were a lot more disciplined and beautiful visually) he inarguably has a unique way with actors, loosening up their own gifts and allowing for a generous amount of surprise. The performances in his movies have an unusual level of candor, idiosyncracy, humor, and sideways genius. Whatever one thinks of Precious and The Paperboy, for example, there's just no point in denying the jaw-dropping fearlessness of Mo'nique and Nicole Kidman in them. Here in The Butler this gift serves Daniels especially well with Oprah who commands every scene with the skill of a professional actor and the abandon of an untrained novice. Watching Oprah boogie in a crocheted disco suit is worth the ticket purchase alone. Though Forest Whitaker's character is too staid to be very interesting and saddled with ghastly 'let me state the obvious...and repeatedly' narration, the picture is filled with personalities that add welcome flavor. (Yaya Dacosta is terrifically self-satisfied as a bitchy Black Panther, Isaac White is endearingly playful as the youngest son, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz counterbalance Whitaker's stillness well in the White House.)
But despite the lively performance bits, Lee Daniels' The Butler plays it quite safe and thus quite unlike a Lee Daniels' picture. The result is two movies, spinning in opposite directions side by side. The one with horny bored mama Oprah and her squabbling family is a real good time. The other one has its heart in the right place (People get fussy about the repetition but it bears repeating: America seriously has ISSUES with racism) but is often not much more than an African-American Oscar-baiting cousin to Cavalcade (1933) and Forrest Gump (1994), two wildly overrated "Best Pictures" for White People in which the cypher protagonists drift through Important Historical Signposts for your edification.
Grade: A, B, C, D ...depending on the scene.
MVP: Oprah by a thousand percent... it's not on the Kidman/Mo'Nique level but damn she's entertaining in it
Oscar Chances: Yes, it's a crudely managed self-important history lesson but Oscar loves self-important history lessons however they're managed!. It's a done deal for at least one Oscar nod (Oprah Winfrey as Best Supporting Actress) though Screenplay and Picture, the next most likely nods, might be harder to harvest. Longshot possibilites exist in Actor (Forest Whitaker) and Supporting Actor (David Oyelowo) if AMPAS falls for it in a big way. As for craft categories, it isn't really showy in that way despite the historical trappings (beyond costumes) or even "beautiful" so they're unlikely... though AMPAS does occassionally like long ungraceful "greatest hits" history lessons in the Editing category for reasons we cannot begin to fathom.