Film review: The Butler’s star-studded cast overcomes choppy storytelling

Forest Whitaker (third from right) leads the best actor race in Lee Daniels' pre-season Oscar bait, The Butler. Forest Whitaker (third from right) leads the best actor race in Lee Daniels’ pre-season Oscar bait, The Butler.

It’s a good thing the heart of Lee Daniels’ The Butler is Forest Whitaker, because the movie has a great story to tell but gets in its own way. Whitaker keeps the movie centered amid the barrage of huge star cameos, corny dialogue, and choppy storytelling—plot threads come and go, unresolved—as Cecil Gaines, a White House butler for seven administrations.

From the beginning, director Daniels lets the audience know this story won’t be cuddly. One of the first images to appear on screen is two black men, lynched, hanging from a tree. It’s gruesome. It’s effective.

We flash forward to see Cecil waiting in the Obama White House to meet the president. Then we flash back to Cecil’s childhood in the deep south. In a span of about five minutes, a white man rapes Cecil’s mother and his father is killed by the same man. Cecil, about 8, can do nothing.

It’s here that the first piece of stunt casting occurs. Cecil’s mother is Mariah Carey, who couldn’t look less like she belongs on a cotton farm. She soon fades into the background, though, as Cecil is trained to work in the house by Vanessa Redgrave.

Teenaged Cecil (Aml Ameen), leaves the farm and heads north for work, but is eventually forced to break into a restaurant to avoid starving. He’s given refuge and a job by Maynard (Clarence Williams III, who’s in the movie far too little). When Maynard passes on a position in an upscale Washington, D.C. hotel, he recommends Cecil, who becomes a favorite among the politicians. It’s then that he’s approached by the White House (and played by Whitaker) to serve in the Eisenhower administration.

The rest of the movie is a mess. It’s a glorious mess, though. For all the bad dialogue —“I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out” is a phrase uttered but not for comic effect—the actors manage to transcend some of the clunky things they have to say.

For example, with just looks, Whitaker conveys the pain caused him by the relationship with his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who would rather fight racism head on than take the measured approach Cecil does. With each passing scene, we see Cecil subtly becoming sadder as he and Louis drift apart.

Oprah Winfrey, whom one would think would be the queen of distracting casting, is quite good as Cecil’s long-suffering wife Gloria. As for the presidents themselves, there’s Eisenhower (Robin Williams, awkward but quiet), Kennedy (James Marsden, surprisingly good), Johnson (Liev Schreiber, overdoing it), Nixon (John Cusack, laughably bad), and Reagan (Alan Rickman, and very Alan Rickmanesque). Ford and Carter get a pass.

Whitaker is given able support by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as other White House butlers, but he remains the center of this cinematic storm. The Butler has been uncharitably compared to Forrest Gump, but it’s much better; its story, even though it’s all over the place, is never cheap and it doesn’t trade on nostalgia. In Forrest Gump, the past was used as a tool for baby boomers. In The Butler, the past is strewn with the dead.

The Butler

Opening Friday, August 16

PG-13, 126 minutes

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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