News Column

'The Butler' Is Gripping but 'Gumpy'

August 16, 2013

The Virginian-Pilot

With a remarkable star-driven ensemble cast and an epic overview that covers eight presidents, from 1952 to 1986, "The Butler" has Oscar bait stamped all over it.

It has the good fortune to arrive in theaters in the waning days of summer, when adult moviegoers are starved for something of importance -- particularly what they hope will be a historical epic.

Furthermore, a great film about the American civil rights movement is long overdue.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler," unfortunately, is not quite that movie.

The film, focused around a longtime White House butler, seems destined to be a commercial success in the vein of "The Help," to which it bears close kin in terms of comfortable audience appeal. But it offers mere moments

of rousing emotion and lacks the focus that could have made it a meaningful and significant film rather than just a very entertaining one.

Nonetheless, it is well worth seeing, with a cast that never fails to amaze. The fascination, though, is in how the film will interpret its quick visits to historical moments rather than how it will report them.

Every base is touched, from the Vietnam War to America's civil rights battles, Watergate and state dinners. All of them are touched very quickly, and lightly, in a style that has been compared more to "Forrest Gump" than to a historical documentary.

The film is based on the career and life of White House butler Eugene Allen, who is fictionalized here as Cecil Gaines. Born in Georgia, he sees both his father and mother killed. Befriended by a white matriarch, played by Vanessa Redgrave, he is taught the ways of elegant serving and told that "the room should feel empty when you're in it."

Tutored in North Carolina, he gets a job at a classy hotel in Washington, D.C., where his professionalism is noticed by a Harry Truman aide, which lands Gaines a job in the White House. The butler serves every president from Truman to Ronald Reagan, giving him a front seat to turbulent times.

A server and an onlooker, though, can be difficult statuses to play. Forest Whitaker, who lost a good deal of weight to take on the effort, is somewhat saddled with the assignment. But he manages, late in the game, to suggest that he feels more than he is actually allowed to show.

He captures the character's complicated emotions, even when attempting, by orders, to go entirely unnoticed.

Of the many stars assembled for this massive acting marathon, the one most likely to have an Oscar hope is Oprah Winfrey, who gets to play both earth mother and alcoholic as Gaines' none-too-timid wife.

It is Winfrey's first dramatic role since 1998's disastrous "Beloved," but a reminder of the actress who earned an Oscar nomination for 1985's "The Color Purple." If she can be categorized as a supporting actress, she could have a good chance in this year's Oscar race. It is a showy part, and she takes advantage of every opportunity.

The other dramatic standout is David Oyelowo as the son who, in contrast to his father, is an activist. He, over family protests, is on the front line of the civil rights movement with both Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers.

A chance for real drama surfaces here. About the best we get, though, is the tension of a family dinner in which the son accuses both his father and Sidney Poitier of being Uncle Toms.

Soon, we're back at the White House and privy to a parade of stars that is wonderfully entertaining to watch, but also distracting -- Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It is fun to see how the screenplay shows its likes and dislikes for the chief executives. Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) is seen, mainly, sitting on the commode and being vulgar -- even if he did pass the most expansive civil rights legislation in our history.

Richard Nixon, in one of the most personal scenes, is amusing in an attempt to court votes in the White House kitchen among "your people." John Cusack, though, is so non-Nixon that the scene suffers.

Noticeable, too, is the fact that Ronald Reagan is played by an actor often assigned villain roles, Alan Rickman, and his administration is represented by a discussion of South African policy. It is shown, though, that the Gaines family is invited as guests, not servants, to the Reagan White House.

Director Daniels doesn't do much with this parade of events, allowing the proceedings to become a kind of "then this happened" checklist of history. He does show some imagination in countering a White House dinner with a sit-in at a lunch counter.

"The Butler," though, is quite a show. Its 132 minutes fly by.

For those so starved for worthwhile topical fare to offset all the summer noise in theaters, "The Butler" will be doubly welcome. Only those who expected a more "important" film will be off-put.

Mal Vincent, 757-446-2347, mal.vincent@pilotonline.com

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"LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER"

Cast Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard

Director Lee Daniels

Screenwriter Danny Strong

Music Rodrigo Leao

MPAA rating PG-13 (some language, largely inoffensive)

Mal's rating

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Movie festival voting

Mal Vincent's annual Classic Film Festival will come to an end with Monday's 7:15 p.m. screening of "His Girl Friday" at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk. The festival's conclusion also means it will be time to vote for its acting awards. Find a ballot at here. Voting ends at noon Monday.

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(c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

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