Monday, August 26, 2013

Movie with Abe: The Butler

The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels
Released August 16, 2013

Biopics often tell long, sweeping stories encompassing a protagonist’s entire life. The true-life tale of the man who served as the butler to six presidents over the course of almost thirty years is ripe for a cinematic interpretation, and a fitting project for Lee Daniels, who recently struck Oscar gold with “Precious.” At times, it’s just as devastating and heart-wrenching as that film, contrasting Cecil Gaines’ life of servitude with his son’s extensive involvement in the civil rights movement. It’s best compared to another recent biopic with a nonstop array of familiar faces, “Lincoln,” an occasionally moving film that more often gets bogged down by an overindulgent and tedious style.

“The Butler” begins with a young Cecil, later played by Forest Whitaker, witnessing the traumatic death of his father at the hands of an empowered white man, which shapes his attitude towards obedience, duty, and respect. A short spell of guidance and self-discipline later, Cecil is offered a job at the White House, which puts him directly beside presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan. While he spends his long days bringing tea to the President, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) suffers from a dependency on alcohol, and his older son Louis (David Oyelowo) is compelled to stand up for what he believes in, directly contradicting his father’s purposefully apolitical nature.

Unlike “Lincoln,” this film does not limit itself to one isolated chapter in the course of its main character’s life. Yet by working to encompass so much in just over two hours and fifteen minutes, “The Butler” often skips ahead nearly a decade at a time without filling in any of the blanks, while other less gripping segments bear no sense of timeliness or urgency. The film is at its most potent when Louis’ violence-ridden activities are spliced into the serenity and consistency of Cecil’s daily routine, highlighting the fact that Louis’ story might indeed be the more interesting one.

Whitaker, who delivered a tour de force performance that won him an Oscar in “The Last King of Scotland,” is noticeably thinner than ever before in a muted but effective turn as the eternally loyal Cecil. While Winfrey’s role may garner her awards aplenty, it doesn’t demand much and she responds capably if less than memorably. The performance of the film comes from British actor Oyelowo, who embodies a passionate soul powerfully. Of the parade of random actors recruited to portray presidents, Liev Schreiber’s fiery LBJ is by far the most entertaining. Ultimately, “The Butler” is a comprehensive experience that has its moments but doesn’t always reach a point of relevance or excellence.


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