Take Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, stir in some Robin Williams, Lenny Kravitz and Alan Rickman, bring to a boil, garnish with John Cusack, Jane Fonda and a sprig of Mariah Carey. What would you call such a delish-dish?
In Hollywood, it’s called The Butler — an over-stirred stew of cinematic proportions. It’s a film with the tone of a mishmash movie — a made-for-TV one at that. How this got theatrical release, one can only point fingers at Oprah Winfrey and director Lee Daniels, who’s taken to branding himself by putting his name atop the film title, like he’s a semi-serious Tyler Perry.
This film flip-flops for an astounding 2 hours and 6 minutes, which feels more like 3 hours and 7 minutes. Whitaker is amazing at sustaining a quiet reserve throughout the tumult of time, from one generation to the next, from one presidency to another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and — well, you get the idea. He’s even-keeled for three decades, and if you’re counting, that’s eight American presidents. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan…your mother says you gotta eat a lot of these. Whitaker’s portrayal of fictional White House butler, Cecil Gaines, does plenty of jump ropin’ through the political landscape of the Civil Rights Movement, on into the milestones that shaped modern America. Along the way, he keeps aloof and serves with a reserved dignity that is impressive to watch. He is the constant, as cheap casting (Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Cusack as Nixon) keeps the jump rope swinging through familiar historical moments. There’s the double-dutch assassinations of those Kennedy boys, the criss-cross of Nixon’s profound paranoia, and on and on. One thing that was illuminating: every time Cecil entered the Oval Office, there just happened to be a tense racial situation brewing that the President had to deal with, whilst ol’ Cecil there would have to bite his tongue, keep his composure and pour some coffee for the man in control of the White House. Certainly the most unsettling instance of this recurrent juxtaposition occurs when Nixon orders Hoover to bring down the Black Panthers, whilst Cecil stands by, wondering if anyone’s noticed his son is on the fringe of joining the group. The story is based on the real life White House butler, Eugene Allen, who gracefully ascended the ranks, from pantry man to the Maître d’hôtel of the White House. It’s not just Mr. Allen whose life is refashioned — it’s American history too. This tale is a comic book re-imagining that twists and turns fact into a questionable fiction. Indeed, the film is based on a true story, the way The Wizard of Oz is based on Kansas. It’s a tricky bit of revisionist history, for instance, to imply that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t quite work, didn’t quite budge the attitudes of Americans about racial relations. Those Republicans just never learn. Or is it the Democrats? What we need is to see LBJ flush away his bigotry and frustrations. Don’t worry — the film delivers that, too.
Perhaps the most laughable aspect of the film, though, comes when Oprah Winfrey ages. If you stay to the end, as the credits roll, you get to see who’s to blame. The transformation for dear Oprah was so appalling that these “artists” must be called out to answer for their collective transgression: Beverly Jo Pryor, LeDiedra Richard-Baldwin, Kellie Robinson, Yolanda Sheridan, Aimee Stuit, Clinton Wayne, Lee Grimes, Courtney Lether, and Debra Denson.
Similar to the great Hitchcock film, 39 Steps, The Butler boasts 39 producers, associate producers, executive producers, co-producers and co-executive producers. Perhaps when word spread that Oprah was doing a film about the White House butler, friends and investors just had to have a piece. Is there an Academy Award for the largest number of producers to make a film? We have a nomination. Daniels’ award-winning film, Precious, was produced by Oprah, and speaking of…Tyler Perry. That film only had a baker’s dozen worth of producers — and was infinitely better.
The Butler serves out stars like they’re cameo rolls (not roles) — you know, like free biscuits at Aunt Kizzy’s: Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., James Marsden, Liev Schreiber — everyone but Michael Caine. But one special treat this film offers, besides Whitaker’s terrifically stoic portrayal of Cecil Gaines, is an appearance by the brilliant Clarence Williams III (Linc from Mod Squad), who works his magic with a truly superb performance as Maynard, the head butler.
If you’re looking for a superficial, historically insignificant and inaccurate film that delivers first-class, white-glove service, look no further. If you’re looking for a film that takes a great concept and character and clumsily parades one ridiculous interlude with another, using the conceit of the story to showcase silliness mingled with drama, then you’ve found the film that dares you not to like it. What you see is what you get. A new, unquestioning generation sees this docudrama and assumes that this is the way it was.
What’s wrong with America these days? We don’t complain when we get served bad food. We eat it because it’s not cheap anymore, like a movie ticket; we convince ourselves that it was good because of the price we paid — in cash and time. It’s a mass manic response. Sure, you can patronize your cinema palace to see The Butler. But when it’s over, consider if you liked what you were served — or if you really just liked Forrest Whitaker.
Rated PG-13. Showing worldwide.
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