Review: “The Butler” serves up some fine performances

September 6th, 2013 at 8:14 am by under Entertainment
"The Butler" poster courtesy The Weinstein Company

“The Butler” poster courtesy The Weinstein Company

“The Butler” (2013)
Rated: PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Runtime: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Biography/Drama

My spoiler-free review:

“The Butler” takes us on a walk through some of the most tumultous times in the last 100 years of American history… as experienced by the title’s main character – Cecil Gaines – played solidly by Forest Whitaker.  He is surrounded by a cast of many familiar historical characters: JFK, Nixon, Eisenhower, the Reagans… but its his family and friends that provide the real depth and the acting performances that could garner the movie some Oscar nominations. I give it 7.9 out of 10.

Parents – don’t be fooled by that PG-13 rating: “The Butler” has some very grown up elements: disturbing images and offensive language that includes the “N” word.

The movie is about an hour in when we see the first presidential portrayal when Cecil first gets to the White House… its Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Williams is probably the best of the actors portraying Presidents as the rest are more caricatures than characters in Lee Daniels movie – experts will have to weigh in on the historical accuracy of their personalities and accents.  I can tell you that while Alan Rickman looked like Ronald Reagan, he didn’t really sound like him.   While I think Liev Schreiber looked a bit like Lyndon B. Johnson, I’m not sure if the 36th President really had discussions with the bathroom door open.   James Marsden clearly worked hard on his voice to try to match the accent of John F. Kennedy, but its hard to say whether he got it right, or if he just sounds like every other JFK impersonation… which is a distraction of what is otherwise a pretty good performance.   The toughest pill to swallow is John Cusack as Richard Nixon… who may sound a lot like him and have his mannerisms, but the prosthetic nose he is wearing gets in the way of his whole performance and the impact of his character on butler Cecil Gaines.  Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) is only in a couple scenes and while his essence might be right, his look and sound don’t seem to be accurate either.  (Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are not portrayed by an actor, merely included with historical footage)

While I’m trying to get past the struggles of the performances/makeup and whether or not these portrayals are accurate… what I should be taking away is how they impacted the civil rights movement and our main characters lives… because what I’m really taking away is more about their quirky characters than how they helped/impeded social change in this country.

Luckily, these historical figures are just supporting cast and cameos.  Whitaker is solid as the mild mannered and often quiet Cecil, although he spends much of the first 30 minutes mostly as the narrator through his childhood… he is the movie’s center and emotional strength, but not as likely to get an Oscar nomination as Oprah Winfrey.  She plays his wife, Gloria… who, as many wives of that time can appreciate – has to take care of things at home while her husband is out working.  Gloria struggles with being lonely, being a mom, alcohol addiction, and supporting her man… and Winfrey mesmerizes with her ability to play the powerful role so effortlessly.  David Oyelowo does some heavy lifting as their oldest son Louis who can’t help but get involved in the civil rights movement… putting a face and real emotion to the freedom riders and the students who sat-in at segregated diners of the 1960s.   Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz add some really good supporting depth as fellow White House butlers, and Terrence Howard shows his chops as a troubled neighbor.

We get a first hand account of how the civil rights movement was viewed differently both inside and outside the walls of the White House (if it is indeed historically accurate)… and how that impacted both presidents and regular people.   Director Lee Daniels also does a good job giving us a sense of the sheer brutality and hatred that existed at that time… a time that I was only able to experience in history books and movies like this.  He adds just enough comic relief in a few places to lighten the mood… but Daniels correctly keeps us in this state of insecurity of what is going to happen with our main characters.

But … I really wish he spent more time putting us in the trenches both on the front lines and back at home during the war between equality and segregation… I would have been more impressed if the scenes at the White House were less about the actors playing the President and used more archival footage… keeping Cecil in the room, but maybe only seeing the backs of the Presidents and hearing bits and pieces of the conversations… truly from his point of view… not the closeups we see here of the whispers while he’s on the other side of the room.

MORE INFO (possible spoilers):

“The Butler” 

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), James Marsden (JFK), Minka Kelly (Jacqueline Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Nelsan Ellis (Martin Luther King Jr.), Alan Rickman (Reagan), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan)

Director: Lee Daniels ["Precious" (2009)]

Writer(s): Danny Strong (Wil Haygood – article)

The Plot: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

So what did you think?  Please post a comment!

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One Response to “Review: “The Butler” serves up some fine performances”

  1. big Daddy BC says:

    What an odd thread for a weather blog.

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