Monday, September 2, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Grade: 48/C+

Lee Daniels is a vulgar filmmaker, but there may be a place for his vulgarity yet. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (retitled after some silly brouhaha between The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros.), comes from the same man who combined seediness and sanctimony so noxiously in Precious and last year’s disaster The Paperboy, and his new film features more tiresome sermonizing than ever. But whatever one can say about Daniels’ more irritating tendencies, his nasty energy breathes life into what would otherwise be a staid exercise in awards baiting.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has dedicated his life to not being noticed. Raised on a cotton plantation where his mother was raped and father was murdered by the farmer, Gaines works as a server in a Washington, D.C. hotel when he’s recommended for a job as a butler in the White House. Gaines works for nearly forty years from the Eisenhower to the Reagan administration, never showing a political side. But through the turbulent years, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) rebels against his father by growing more politically radical, while his marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) suffers.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler plays like a racism-oriented cross between Forrest Gump and The Remains of the Day, and while it’s not quite as self-congratulatory as the former, nor is it as elegant or moving as the latter. Daniels’ depiction of the presidencies is broad and obvious- Johnson is a vulgar Texan racist who shits with the bathroom door open, Nixon a scheming monster oblivious or uncaring to minority issues, Reagan a false friend coldly dismissing human rights issues. It’s not that any of these things are necessarily untrue, but Daniels reduces each president (with the exception of the gallant Kennedy) to one or two broadly sketched moments.

It doesn’t much help that Daniels’ penchant for excess and star-casting still runs wild- while James Marsden’s warm, charismatic Kennedy escapes unscathed, most of the performances as the presidents range from not terrible but distracting (Robin Williams and Alan Rickman as Eisenhower and Reagan) to embarrassing caricatures (Liev Schreiber as LBJ). John Cusack, awful as a Southern psychopath in The Paperboy, is again egregiously miscast by Daniels, this time as Nixon. It’s unfair to compare Cusack to past dynamic Tricky Dick performances from Frank Langella, Anthony Hopkins, and Philip Baker Hall- the poor guy just isn’t convincing as the raging megalomaniac he’s ostensibly playing. Someone needs to keep these two from ever working together again.

That said, the film isn’t about the presidents (and thank god for that, I couldn’t take another white savior movie). Whitaker is one of the most effective minimalist actors of his generation, and his performance suggests a man whose bottled-up sorrows and qualms weigh heavily on his person (his hanging of his shoulders is a particularly nice touch). Winfrey is equally strong even as the script gives her hoary lines such as “I don’t care about what goes on in that house, I care about what goes on in this house!” The film throws melodrama her way, but her dynamic, deeply sad performance keeps much of the film grounded.

Oyelowo, unfortunately, is given the thankless role of being little more than a figure for changing times rather than a believable character. His arc (from student to protestor to Black Panther to senator) and his relationship with his father are hokey, and while they do beget some truth regarding Cecil’s role in civil rights history, they do so by literally having Martin Luther King, Jr. (in a conversation with Louis) spell out the film’s central theme.

How odd, then, that the film is never more alive than when following Oyelowo on the road, where Daniels’ seedy side gives his journey real bite. Coffee is thrown in protestor’s faces, Klansmen bomb buses, and calls for violent revenge almost feel justified. Where most middlebrow race or issues dramas sanitize our ugly past, Daniels’ film shows it in all its ugliness. It doesn’t excuse how maudlin the film ultimately is, but compared to Daniels’ past glib exercises in human degradation, it does feel more purposeful.

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