6 / 10
Directed by Lee Daniels. Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah and EVERYONE ELSE.
Lee Daniels has probably never heard of Click Frenzy, but he should know that his movie was equally disappointing.
The Butler – or Lee Daniels’ The Butler as only film snobs and ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’ will call it – was meant to be the movie of the year and a shoe-in for the Oscar. In fact that’s what I was telling every person that I ran into on the way to see the movie.
“I’m on my way to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The critics are saying it’s the film of the year; I’m quite certain it will win the Oscar,” I said between sips of my craft gin, which I like to carry with me whenever I’m on my way to see an acclaimed film. “They say it’s the performance of Whitaker’s career.”
And I really expected all that to be true. A glimpse of the trailer is enough to make you sigh deeply and say, “Wow, this is going to be good and profound. This will be an important movie. Butler, bring me my craft gin.”
Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who loyally and stoically serves three and half decades of presidents through the most significant developments of the Civil Rights movement. He doesn’t play much of a role in any of them, but he hears all, sees all and never spills a drop of tea.
Meanwhile, Cecil’s son Louis is being slightly more proactive. In fact, he manages to be present at pretty much every major civil rights clash of the period. If you look closely, you can see Forrest Gump in the background of many of Louis’ scenes. Haha, I’m kidding, you can’t. …or can you?
You’re probably wondering what Oprah is doing during all of this. Jus’ drinkin’. And she actually does it quite well. Her transformation from billionaire, style-Queen philanthropist to alcoholic ghetto housewife is quite seamless and reminded me, somewhat guiltily, of this guy.
The rest of the acting is good too – Whitaker is solid; he was always going to be solid. Whitaker is the Civoniceva of cinema. But it’s not the performance of his career. That was when he played the last King of Scotland. In Braveheart, I think.
The rest of the black ensemble cast is also excellent – Cuba Gooding, Jnr, Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Colman Domingo. All very good. Lenny Kravitz. What a guy! Put him in everything.
But when they were quickly followed by Liev Schreiber (Lyndon Johnson), John Cusack (Richard Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan) – each trotting their prosthetic nose out onto the stage, hand raised humbly, to imaginary canned applause – the White House started to feel a lot like an SNL skit. Might as well have got Nick Cage to play Bill Clinton, Keanu Reeves to play Hillary, and called it a wrap.
But while the cameos were a mistake, they were not the real problem with this film. The real problem with Lee Daniels’ The Butler was Lee Daniels. He was so eager for his movie to be The Next Big Thing that he smothered it with contrivances. Dipped the whole darn thing in a big glossy jar of contrivance until it came out looking like a Woman’s Day centrefold.
It was disappointing because the themes in The Butler are important; it’s a good story that should be told. But Daniels tells it with the subtlety of a bull in a sledgehammer store. And that zaps the film of the emotion that it should have generated.
I knew exactly which scenes were meant to make me shiver; to flick me in the tear ducts. The sit-in at a segregated diner; the confrontation with the KKK; and Cecil and Louis’ anguished disagreements about how best to deal with racism in America. But these scenes just didn’t deliver the emotional sucker punch to the face that they were meant to. They felt more like getting slapped with a wet dishcloth.
Go see it if you want – you won’t hate it – but don’t bother taking your gin.