It’s somehow ironic that a studio copyright dispute—of which I still cannot make heads nor tails—legally obligated Lee Daniels’ name to appear in the title of what was formerly just known as The Butler. This is easily the most subdued and least Lee Daniels-y of the filmmaker’s four features thus far, attempting to tamp down some of his more wonderfully lurid melodramatic tendencies. I suppose after having Nicole Kidman pee on Zac Efron in last year’s wrongly maligned The Paperboy, Daniels probably had no choice but to go try and get all respectable on us. (Oprah Winfrey obviously wasn’t going to throw a TV at anyone’s head.) But the excitement of The Butler comes from watching the director’s rude energy chafe up against the stodgy constraints of a traditional Oscar-bait biopic. In other hands, this could have been Driving Miss Daisy, but you know you’re watching a Lee Daniels film when Mariah Carey gets raped in the opening scene.
A fictionalized take on the true story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the son of a murdered sharecropper who found himself serving a procession of American presidents, standing quietly in the corner for nearly four decades of history. Whitaker is a marvelous actor who always looks so physically uncomfortable, it’s impossible to imagine him at rest—canny casting for a man always struggling to disappear into the woodwork, taught from a very young age that “the room should feel empty when you’re in it.”
Haunted by brutal memories of the Jim Crow-era South, Cecil longs to protect his rebellious son, Louis (David Oyelowo), but you know how thick-headed kids can be. The younger Gaines recoils at his father’s life of silent servitude, ditching college to become the Forrest Gump of the civil rights movement, coincidentally in attendance for so many historical signposts that Danny Strong’s screenplay sometimes feels like the Cliff’s Notes to Eyes on the Prize. Boiling down to a dramatization of the old MLK vs. Malcolm X divide, The Butler plays out through the years in a bunch of unsubtle contrasts, with Cecil wearing white gloves while Louis becomes a Black Panther.
Lucky for us, un-subtlety is Daniels’ strong suit as a director. (I still don’t feel like I watched Precious so much as I feel like I was bludgeoned into submission by it.) He peaks early with an electrifying montage juxtaposing Cecil’s fancy dinner preparations with Louis taking a beating for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter, but you can still feel a passion and commitment within even the clumsiest, most misbegotten scenes, most of which take place within the Oval Office.
I don’t know who was in charge of screen-testing some of these commanders-in-chief, but an April Fool’s Day joke must have gone horribly wrong within the casting department. Robin Williams makes an inexplicable Dwight Eisenhower, and James Marsden does valiant battle with JFK’s accent. John Cusack’s prosthetic Nixon nose alone is enough to make you relieved the movie’s not in 3-D, while Liev Schreiber’s laytex-laden Lyndon Johnson comes off like an SNL sketch from one of those seasons nobody likes to talk about, especially when he’s photographed on the toilet with his dogs. Alan Rickman doesn’t even bother trying to do a Ronald Reagan impression, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Jane Fonda as his wife, Nancy, feels thrown in just to irritate right-wing talk radio hosts.
The film fares far better on the homefront, with a surprisingly game performance from Winfrey as Cecil’s alcoholic wife. Shimmying around to Soul Train in the living room while swilling gin, she’s got a little something going on the side with Terrence Howard’s sleazebag next-door neighbor. Meanwhile, Whitaker’s always controlling his reactions, just as he does at work; we never know if he knows.
Screenwriter Danny Strong also penned HBO’s election docudramas Recount and Game Change, so he’s carved an odd little niche for himself reducing history lessons down into bite-sized nuggets where everyone announces the subtext out loud. But the filmmaking is rough around the edges, even when the script is painfully tidy. This movie feels much messier and more alive than it probably should.
Like most biopics, The Butler suffers from trying to capture an entire lifetime in two hours, marching dutifully through the decades as if ticking items off a list. (A couple of administrations pass while Gladys Knight is singing on TV. Yeah, Oprah watches an awful lot of Soul Train in this movie.) It’s an awkward film of ill-fitting corners, giving the sense that Daniels, like the title character, is trying to remain on his best behavior.