Treacle is served
This movie is not named The Butler. Do not call it The Butler.
Officially and onscreen, it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, giving director-producer Daniels a before-the-title artistic possessive typically afforded to such luminaries as Clive Barker, M. Night Shyamalan and Mr. Magorium of Wonder Emporium fame.
The curious choice to title it Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Daniels was Oscar-nominated a few years back, but he’s hardly a household name) ostensibly indicates pride of ownership in the finished product. However, it could also have been a sneaky ploy by The Weinstein Company—no strangers to sneaky ploys—to serve up a ready-made fall guy for this treacle-drenched stinker.
Daniels broke through with 2009’s Precious: Based on the Novel ’Push’ By Sapphire, which he directed like it was the last movie he would ever make. Although critically overrated, the emotional intensity of Precious generally offset Daniels’ overindulgences. No such luck for his 2012 disaster The Paperboy, a would-be potboiler so ugly, Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron is one of the five least offensive things that happens in it.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not based on a novel, but is rather “inspired by true events”—much like John Hinckley Jr. was “inspired” by The Catcher in the Rye. Actually, the film’s adapted from a Washington Post article about real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, a black man who served eight presidents during some of the most turbulent times in American history.
Daniels took that kernel and blew it up into a Gump’s-eye-view of the civil-rights era that is Oscar chum at its most pandering. Forest Whitaker, caked in so much aging and de-aging latex that he looks like an audio-animatronics figure at Disneyland Presents Great Moments With Lee Daniels’ The Butler, plays Cecil Gaines, son of a murdered cotton farmer reborn through a life of servitude at the White House.
There is a seed of a compelling film in Cecil’s strained relationship with his increasingly revolutionary son and their parallel struggles against racial inequality. Unfortunately, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong realize that potential in only a handful of scenes, mostly wallowing in biopic clichés and calculated heart-tugging instead.
The film’s news-montage take on history is so absurd it borders on parody, without any indication that Daniels gets the joke. Cecil’s son doesn’t just join the civil-rights movement—he participates in the Greensboro sit-ins, gets pummeled by fire hoses in Birmingham, rides the Freedom Riders bus, is at the Lorraine Motel when Martin Luther King Jr. gets shot, and seemingly, the next day, is hanging out with the Oakland Black Panthers. Even Forrest Gump didn’t get around that much, and he was incredibly fast.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler fails on basic visual and narrative levels, even while turning Rodrigo Leão’s musical score up to 11 in an attempt to win a thousand Oscars at once. As in Precious and The Paperboy, Daniels can’t shape a single sequence, or decide what kind of movie he wants to make. The visuals are hopelessly chaotic, while entire characters and subplots could be cut with no noticeable scars.
Scene after scene drags on without a discernible beginning or end, and as a result, the movie seems bottomless. Absent of any thematic cohesion or narrative coherence, Lee Daniels’ The Butler never gains momentum, even as the story stampedes through history like a raging bull.
Whitaker is strong as usual, but the presidents are portrayed in a series of distracting star cameos by the likes of Robin Williams as Eisenhower and James Marsden as Kennedy. These cameos might be the main box-office draw, but they’re mostly Saturday Night Live-level impressions played under mountains of makeup (most boggling: Alan Rickman looking and acting nothing like Ronald Reagan).
Only John Cusack’s surprising turn rises above the level of a gimmick—with just a few mumbles and glances, his Nixon is alternately slimy, embittered and desperately in need of approval, even from those paid to serve him.
Oprah Winfrey is also featured, but the coup de grace is civil-rights era radical Jane Fonda, bewigged and bepearled to portray Nancy Reagan in a late, throwaway scene. This is the kind of stunt casting gag that works if your movie is Mel Brooks’ The Butler, not if it’s a self-important snoozer like Lee Daniels’ The Butler.