I wanted to like Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I really, really did.
The film tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man employed by the White House as a butler. During his time there, he worked under eight Presidents and experienced American events (the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate) like no other man in a non-political life ever has. The film also delves into how his time at the White House affected his family, most significantly his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo).
Along his journey, we also get to meet a handful of the Presidents that he worked for; Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).
I’m not a big fan of stunt casting, maybe Daniels is but having these big, recognizable actors in what could be called cameo roles is baffling. For one, it totally took me out of the movie. “Oh look, Robin Williams is Eisenhower.” “Alan Rickman does look like Reagan. Good makeup.” There was no reason to get these guys in the film. All of them were fine; except for Cusack. His Nixon was almost laughable. But still, hire someone we don’t know. That’ll give a working actor a much needed job and won’t thrust me out of the film.
The film itself suffers from Forrest Gump syndrome. Every significant event in the civil rights movement, his son, Louis, seemed to be there. The Freedom Riders bus was bombed? He’s there! Dragged out of a diner for sitting in the whites only section? He’s there! The assassination of Martin Luther King? There!
It spans such a long time period that some scenes are amazingly short and seem just to be there to plug in a gap in the timeline. The story just didn’t flow with me. On top of that, some scenes feel like they are there for pure exposition; where did a character end up or what happened in their lives that isn’t portrayed in the film?
And poor, poor Cecil. Every time he has a moment of joy or even when he begins to crack a smile – BAM! – something horrible in his life happens.
This doesn’t mean I’m knocking the performances because as whole, they are excellent. Particularly Whitaker and Oyelowo. Both of them can pack an emotional wallop with just one look or far off gaze. Oprah Winfrey, as Cecil’s wife Gloria, is fine but most of her role consisted of getting mad at Cecil. That’s the scripts fault and she does what she can with it.
The final scene, though, between Cecil and Gloria is wonderful; funny, poignant and heartbreaking. That scene alone almost makes sitting through the film worth it.