Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Butler movie review - 100th post special!

After much waiting, I finally got around to seeing The Butler. Or, as it's more accurately called, Lee Daniel's The Butler

For many, it seemed as if the battle over a title (quite a nonsensical one at that) overshadowed the actual film, at least early on. Directed by Lee Daniels (obviously), who previously directed the much loved Precious back in 2009, the film is a collaborative effort between he, and screenwriter Danny Strong, loosely based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen.

The film has generated much positive word of mouth and Oscar buzz, and… um… Okay? I can certainly see why a lot of people really enjoy The Butler, but for me, I did feel like it left a lot to be desired.

In the film, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, an African-American man who served as a waiter for many years of his life, until working his way up to head butler of the White House. During his time in service, he served numerous presidents (played here by the likes of John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, and more), and witnessed many key events, including the Civil Rights movement. His personal life also has issues, due to his wife (Oprah Winfrey) struggling with alcoholism, and his son (David Oyelowo) actively getting involved in the movement, and frequently getting thrown in jail in the meantime.

I wanted to like The Butler more than I actually did. This isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the experience. I guess one of my main problems with the film is that it seems to be juggling too much. It feels like it wants to be too many different types of movies at once, presenting us with a family drama, a civil rights history lesson, a series of presidential cameos, and other such elements. Not to say that the film can’t be all of these at once, but I feel like the movie, and Danny Strong’s script, gets a little too confused at times. In the long run, I find many of these elements perfectly, completely adequate. It definitely holds my attention, but I never felt particularly grabbed by it, which I wanted to so much.

If there’s one thing The Butler has going for it big time, it’s in the cast. One may be forgiven for finding it to be bait for a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble Cast, but I do actually quite like these performances, who all work in their roles quite well (supplied with solidly designed makeup to portray the passage of time). What I think is the best performance of the film is that of Forest Whitaker, who successfully manages to hold the film together as best he can. The reserved nature of the character serves him well, allowing most of his acting to be told through subtle expressions rather than words.

By far the most hyped up performance of The Butler is Oprah Winfrey, and while I do acknowledge that it’s actually a decent performance, I didn’t find it to be all THAT special. However, she does what is required of her, and serves the time well. Even smaller performances from James Marsden, David Oyelowo, and Alan Rickman are done well. On the other hand, one odd wildcard to the movie is Cuba Gooding Jr., whose character spouts vulgar curses that are censored in the most jarring and movie breaking ways (at times, this can even be hilariously bad). I know they had to get a PG-13, but you could have done a more subtle job than that.

In the end, I can’t be too harsh on The Butler, but I can’t really call it one of the year’s best movies either. As I've said, I can definitely see why people do enjoy it, but for me, I feel like the movie's issues are a little too strong. However, though it does stumble, I still found myself enjoying it JUST enough to give it a passing grade.

*** / *****

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