Review: The Butler (2013, Lee Daniels)

the-butler-1RATING: 4.5/10

Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, John Cusak, James Marsden, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave
Screenplay: Danny Strong

This is going to be a rant fest, so if you’re not up for it, I suggest you don’t carry on with this review. Watching “The Butler” (or officially titled as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) is probably the two and a half hours of my 2013 that I wish I had back. The movie was boring, self-important and extremely preachy, and most of it did not work. The performances seemed like expensive dress up for Hollywood’s rich and famous all-stars game, and Lee Daniels’ poor direction did not help even such movie star veterans (like Redgrave, Fonda, Williams etc.) shine in any moment at all. But it had nice sets and costumes, maybe that’s a plus point?

The movie is based on a true story (after some research I found out that it’s highly dramatised – which is necessary for a film…I guess?) of butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who works himself from cotton field picker to respected White House Butler, for three decades to all the President’s in between. But what comes off an inspiring tale became a large mess of preachy scenes, laughable dialogue and cringe worth acting. Even from some you’d never expect it to come from.

Danny Strong’s screenplay is so pretentious. I didn’t believe a moment in the entire narrative was true. And that’s coming from something that’s based on a true story. There was just too many things going on, and I think he included everything thinking that such risqué subject matter about racism would nab him an Academy Award. Same goes for Lee Daniels whose simpler films I actually liked. Is it absurd to say I thought the universally trashed “The Paperboy” (2012) was much better? This film is the definition of Oscar begging, and how it’s actually getting traction is beyond me. It’s “Bobby” (2006) all over again.

On the technical side, it was all right. I loved the costumes and the set pieces were so beautiful to look at. But it was wasted because of the awful cinematography. I felt like I was watching a bad lifestyle TV miniseries, with bad recreations of past events. And I hate to say this because I’ve really grown to love Forrest Whitaker in the past. He did nothing for me in the film. They keep praising him as an actor who does extensive character studies for whom he’s going to play, but this performance was almost laughable. His scenes with Oprah in particular where just plain out bad. She was casted for being Oprah, and wrongfully so – where’s my girls Viola Davis and Angela Bassett? Who really could have brought something to the table.

Best in show is by far David Oyelowo, who always seems to disappear in his roles. I’m a big fan of this guy, and he needs more roles. He was perfect as Gaine’s rebellious son and future Black Panther Louis Gaines. He played 16 to decades later right on point, and I thought was the only saving grace in the entire motion picture’s cast of acclaimed and even Oscar winning performers. Lesson: Oscar doesn’t necessarily mean every performance is going to be golden. He was the only one that was at least bearable to watch.

“Precious” was damn good. “The Paperboy” did not reach my expectations, but it was tolerable and Nicole Kidman was fabulously enticing. But “The Butler”, is a pretentious, self-important, preachy film that bored the living day lights out of me. And trust me, I’m a history freak, so that’s really saying something. I tried to keep my back door opinions on the down low before seeing it, but I think that’s just too difficult to do. Daniels needs to tone it down a bit, maybe large epic productions aren’t for yet just yet.

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