"Lee Daniels’ The Butler" (2013)- Movie Review

Directed by Lee Daniels
Written by Danny Strong (based off article by Wil Haygood)
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Alex Pettyfer

‘Marvelous Acting’

Few movies this year will be generating buzz for their actors as much as Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”. An absorbing, profound and breathtakingly sweeping drama about the life of a White House butler, it has an unbelievably large cast. The kind that Hollywood has a usual tendency of avoiding. Actors such as Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Leiv Schreiber and John Cusack dominate the screen…Could you get any more creative than that? Perhaps, yet not without consequences, as when movies have such large ensemble casts, they often verge on overload. Expectations are tremendously raised with award-season helmers immediately betting their money on actors. One trace of disappoint and a film is virtually ruined. If there’s any movie that isn’t, even in spite of it’s ridiculously humongous cast, it’s “The Butler”. Using an ensemble of performers in a well-balanced manner, this historical drama strikes the heartstrings in a manner so vivid it’s ready to blow you away right from the first frame.

For a star-studded movie like this to arrive during Summer season is rare; a sheer once-in-a-while occasion. Most of the commercial, cash-grabbing films are slated for Summer releases, whereas motion pictures like “The Butler” are placed accordingly for award-season buzz. Normally, filmmakers place these kinds of films at the tipping end of the year months (October, November, December). Although “The Butler” isn’t entirely an award-season contender, the fact that it’s placed right at the end of the Summer months is surprising. This historical-caterer, itself, is far from Oscar-bait material yet it’s cast most definitely is. It isn’t always that one comes across an ensemble cast that’s just spot-on perfect. We’ve seen over the years, the miraculous outings where star-shining casts work tremendously with movies ranging from “The Departed” to “Oceans 11”. But never quite like this. “The Butler” is a larger star-studded vehicle than either of those movies, and most resoundingly, makes use of it’s opportunity in every singly way.

After helming 2009’s critically acclaimed, award-winner “Precious”, Lee Daniels ambitiously returns to the director’s chair for an intimidating project. In front of him is more than 80 years of American history to cover, countless subplots, and a humongous cast many wouldn’t dare to assemble. What he faces is quite terrifying: the task of tying them all together in one film. The job of making a movie that could serve a large audience; please commercial movie-goers as well as the critical ones. Practically, it would make perfect sense for a highly experienced filmmaker to tackle this task. Perhaps, a well-known auteur, such as Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard. The fact that Daniels has only made 3 movies in his directorial career and comes close to succeeding with “The Butler” even, is a gold accomplishment. One that’s hardly ever seen in an industry like Hollywood.

Neither is this kind of boldly crafted story. Starring Forest Whitaker in the central role, “The Butler” recounts the devastating, challenging life of a White House Butler named Cecil Gaines. At a very young age, the African-American is forced to endure the consequences of slavery in South America. After running away from the business at an older stage, he is invited to serve at the White House as a butler. Occupying the job for countless decades, as eight presidents come and go, his life is tremendously impacted by events such as The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War.

To stuff such massive content in a film that’s merely 132 minutes is an exhausting exercise in the works. Miraculously, director Lee Daniels weaves it together in a smart way. Counter-balancing history, with real drama, humor and emotions, he mostly juggles different elements with assured hands. It’s a daunting project, with the tendency to fall apart at any minute during it’s long running time, but this determined filmmaker holds the slow-burning drama together.

Those who are already nodding off at the idea of a solemn history lesson, be aware: this isn’t just drawn-out information about America. Along the extremely heavy-weight, historical bonanza is a great sense of entertainment to keep the audience constantly engaged. There’s a playfulness we rarely ever see in historical dramas nowadays, occasionally erupting in “The Butler”. It’s the delightful joy of watching humor, as well as emotions unfold in a place like the White House. When you least expect it, witty dialogue energetically pummels its way into the big picture, complementing the darker parts of the movie like a necessary ingredient.

Yet, as Lee Daniels proved by assembling loads of A-listers for “The Butler”, this isn’t a movie about dialogue as much as it is about stars. The auteur uses his performers marvelously, in a manner so impeccable that it leaves you in awe once the film has finished. Whether it’s the delicious joy of watching the always-charismatic, upbeat Cuba Gooding Jr. in a major role after a long time, or Oprah Winfrey’s electric presence that reminds us how stunning she can be, this humongous cast doesn’t disappoint one bit. Even if it has high feats to pull off. While it’s questionable whether or not the presidents portrayed are historically accurate, the performers are completely immersed in their roles. Fascinatingly, each brings something new to the palette to stand out.

In the long run, though, the film belongs neither to this group of performers nor the humorous dialogue bursting through the White House scenes. The man of the match, without which the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well, is Forest Whitaker. As Cecil Gaines, he delivers a powerhouse performance of unprecedented grace that elevates “The Butler” to an entirely new level. It’s that difficult, once-in-a-lifetime role that’s always so easy to overact or totally mess up, challenging actors in every way possible. While Whitaker himself admitted to being intimated by this character, the performance isn’t overcome by fear at all. The actor’s strongest moments in the film appear when he’s merely a quiet presence, displaying a subtle understanding of his role that most actors of this day and age aren’t able to.

But such fantastic acting comes at a fault, even if shouldn’t for “The Butler”. When Whitaker isn’t dominating the screen, particularly during the son-movement-revolution scenes, the brilliance of the “The Butler” comes to a slight halt. Although the historical “black-panther” subplot is fairly interesting, even taken up a notch by a strong turn from David Oyelowo, pacing sorely slows down. Whitaker’s missing presence is underwhelming, and as a result, it’s here that your level of interest has it’s ups and downs.

Also doubtful are the movie’s goals to become over-sentimental. While it doesn’t maintain this tone throughout, at times it nearly feels like the filmmakers are trying to force tears out of the viewer.

That being said, like everything else in “The Butler”, this sentimental approach is there for a reason. Director Lee Daniels isn’t solely reproducing history; he wants the audience to be attached to it. To highlight the time period, generally dismissed departments are carefully handled. Albeit covering 80 years is a monumentally demanding quest, makeup is absolutely top-notch. The aging process for the actors, particularly Whitaker and Winfrey, is woven together splendidly to create highly realistic transformations.

Along with the weight of a dazzling soundtrack, these transformations efficiently sets up the emotionally affecting story of “The Butler”. Even if the pacing is messy, and the proceedings a tad heavy-handled, it’s hard to not be moved or touched by such a film. Neither is it easy ignore the power of well-chosen performers, singling out Whitaker especially. His larger-than-life presence is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with, and hopefully won’t be forgotten about come award season. With an Academy Award already under his belt, this sort of performance makes it quite certain that he’ll be up for another one.

4/5 stars

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