Monday, August 19, 2013

Lee Daniels' THE BUTLER: My review

I truly wanted to love this movie. The story is important and its message is one that everyone needs to hear. Unfortunately, LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER falls way short of the mark. The subject matter deserves way better. If only it was MARTIN SCORSESE’S THE BUTLER or KATHRYN BIGELOW’S THE BUTLER. Instead it was more like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE’S THE BUTLER.

All of the stunt casting took you right out of the movie. Just as you watch an SNL skit with Fred Armisen and decide how well he’s playing Obama, that’s what you do with Liev Schreiber playing Lyndon Johnson (answer: ridiculous).

There are so many celebrities making cameo appearances the movie might as well have been called IT’S A MAD MAD MAD SOUTH. I mean, it starts out with Mariah Carey playing a sharecropper’s wife. You’re going “What the fuck?” five minutes in. Then they have Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, and you’re not even following the movie – you’re just evaluating how well he’s doing and wondering why Ed Harris wasn’t available? Or Louis C.K.? James Marsden did the standard Mayor Quimby as JFK impression, and Roberto Benigni could have done a better Texas drawl than Liev Schreiber. Alan Richman as Reagan was… different, but to be fair, Jon Cusack as Nixon stole the movie. He had a more abstract take on Tricky Dick – hard to explain but he was hilarious. An Oscar nomination is not out of the question.  (Of course, this whole project is one huge Oscar grab.)

Along the way they also had Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, and Minka Kelly (as Jackie Kennedy, who in one of the most absurd scenes in the film is mourning the death of her husband, still wearing her blood-stained suit, and she takes time out to give the butler Kennedy’s tie. Yet another “What the fuck?” moment.  There's maybe six of them in this film.) How did they miss Randy Jackson and Mike Tyson? 

As for the leads – Forrest Whittaker was sensational. I wish he had more to play, but he proves (once again) that he is one of our finest screen actors. An Oscar nomination for sure and probably a well-deserved win for Forrest.

(Interesting that the star is named Forrest because even the director admits this movie is sort of a black FORREST GUMP.)

Whittaker is the good news. Then there’s Oprah Winfrey. First, let me say this – I don’t think anyone ever has or ever will be as good a talk show host as Oprah Winfrey. Charisma, poise, accessibility, showmanship, humanity – the woman is the absolute gold standard, and I have nothing but respect for what's she done and all she's accomplished.

But she’s not a great actor. I’m sorry. She's just not. And it’s even more apparent when she’s playing a scene against a great actor.

Every time Oprah came on the screen I suddenly felt like I was watching a vanity project. Again, this story deserved more. This subject matter deserved your complete undivided attention. All I kept thinking was how much better this role would be if Viola Davis or Queen Latifa played it.

I wish the director and the studio trusted the material. I wish they felt that the saga was compelling enough and socially significant enough that they didn’t have to resort to tricks. They didn’t need stunt casting. They didn’t have to jam their characters in every historical event Zelig style. This movie should be taken seriously, but it’s hard to do that with Mariah Carey.

Still, you should probably see it – unless you’re a diehard Republican (because you will hate it I guarantee you). It’s well-meaning, certainly ambitious, and ultimately this movie is not about liking, it’s about appreciating.

56 comments:

Carol said...

Off-topic Friday Question.

I was just reading an article about the Bechdel Test, and it made me wonder if you or anyone you've worked with in a writer's room ever thought about the test, cared about the test, or tried to actively pass the test. (the test for those who might not know is the show must have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man)

Did The Butler pass the test? (this question is to make the question less off topic.)

normadesmond said...

i must admit, the promos made
me think exactly what you wrote.

Anonymous said...

Just addressing the wtf moment about the tie, that's one of the events that did occur.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I don't understand why everybody kept saying this was Oprah's first movie in fifteen years... she was in BEE MOVIE in 2007, and I believe she was also in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG in 2009... what, do those not count since they're animated features?

VP81955 said...

There are so many celebrities making cameo appearances the movie might as well have been called IT’S A MAD MAD MAD SOUTH.

I was thinking more along the lines of "The Greatest White House Story Ever Told," but I suppose that Mariah Carey's stunt casting as a sharecropper's wife doesn't compare to hiring John Wayne to play a Roman centurion.

VP81955 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EileenK said...

Peter Rosenthal of The Onion had a similar take.
http://www.theonion.com/video/the-onion-reviews-lee-daniels-the-butler,33517/

Erika said...

I thought this was a good movie but it could have been a great movie. The scenes between Forrest Whitaker and David Oyelowo were incredibly strong, and they did make me shed a tear. At its core, it's about generational issues between father and son. That part of the movie was great, but the rest of it was blah. I think the whole "based on a true story" thing was limiting because the most interesting part of the movie (the relationship between father and son) was the part that was fiction. I totally agree with you on Oprah (although I think she was very good in The Color Purple). She was a distraction in this movie. I didn't believe her as the character. Every time she was on the screen, I just saw Oprah. I don't think the time spent on her character's issues was necessary to tell the story but it probably was necessary to get Oprah to play her. Also, I think die-hard Republicans will hate the ending but the movie was pretty nice to Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan.

Tom said...

He's actually "Forest" with one "r", but the comparison to Gump is still apt. My favorite work he's done has got to be as Kavanaugh on The Shield.

Hamid said...

Ken, your review pretty much confirms what I suspected.

First up, how fucking arrogant do you have to be to have your movie released as Lee Daniels' The Butler? There's literally only two directors for whom it's been a longstanding tradition and they're allowed to do it, and they're John Carpenter and Whit Stillman. Not even Spielberg or Scorsese release their films actually titled Steven Spielberg's Lincoln or Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

Secondly, I have a visceral reaction against any film that features Mariah Carey trying to act "real". There's something incredibly offensive about a super rich singer who lives a life of limos and entourages trying to get credibility by playing a plantation worker or, in the case of Precious, a social worker. I know, lots of rich movie stars blue collar/working class characters. But most of them don't employ people to lift them up and place them on a couch for a chat show and someone to take their chewing gum and dispose of it.

As for Oprah, she's obviously still pining for the Oscar she thought she deserved for Beloved. I don't think she'll ever stop with her Oscar bait roles. Much like Madonna kept trying again and again to have an acting career and failed, and then decided to direct a movie and failed at that too.

And Ellen's a better chat show host than her.

Bob O said...

The only problem I had with Forrest Whitaker's performance is that he has a tendency to mumble. I found myself missing a goodly amount of his dialogue as a result.

lttuerk@aol.com said...

Hamid - Have you not read the controversy over the title of this film? warner Brothers owns the rights to "The Butler" from a long time ago silent movie and was not going to let the Weinsteins use the tittle. I was a Hollywood bitchslap fest! SO please don't blame lee Daniels for this. It was not his doing.

Lauren

TDG said...

Hamid--

The title was going to be just "The Butler" but a ridiculous lawsuit from Warner Bros. (over a 1916 two-reeler called "The Butler") forced the Weinstein Co. to change the title. Don't blame Lee Daniels' vanity--this was just a way to technically change the title while still leaving it recognizable, and not undoing all the promotional work that had already happened.

Hamid said...

Ok, I stand corrected and I apologise for my previous comments about Daniels. I wasn't aware of the legal problems over the title. I stand by the rest re. Carey and Oprah. And Madonna. And Ellen being a better host.

Sharon said...

While I agree with your conclusion about the movie, we disagree on the details. My take was that the writing was the problem. Look, one of the hardest things to do is to tell a story that spans 40 years, but it can be done. I think wiht better writing the stunt casting would not have been so jarring.

I also disagree re the two leads. While I thought Oprah was phenomenal, I was underwhelmed by Forrest Whitaker's. To me he was the weak acting link.

That said, I agree that it is worth seeing, if only so that the younguns can get a sense of the turmoil of the times and how it effected ordinary folks. That was one thing they got right.

Anonymous said...

I know hardly anything about this flick. I just know I'm so disllusioned with American Politics/Government right now that I'm hardly in the mood to see something that puts them/it in a positive light. I think I need to wait for The 5th Estate.

Frank said...

At least Mariah Carey didn't break into a hip rendition of "My Mammy".

Paul Duca said...

This was all done decades ago, in a TV mini-series called BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE, which reflected the true story of a mother and daughter who together worked there from Taft through Eisenhower.

Michael said...

Friday question:

In a recent blog post about yelling at Rob Reiner, Earl Pomerantz mentioned in the 70's there was a competition between MTM shows which were strictly character-driven and Norman Lear shows which, while also very funny, tried to teach lessons.

Cheers and Frazier clearly fell into the MTM camp while MASH sometimes veered more into the Norman Lear style. Question for you is did you prefer writing for one style or the other?

Dixon Steele said...

"They didn't need the stunt casting".

Well, yes, Ken, they did. That's how and why the picture got financed.

Without those names, the picture, which was turned down by every studio over its "subject matter" (i.e. Black drama), would've never been made.

And just curious, Hamid, but do you live in a mine shaft?

olucy said...

Just read a reviewer who agreed with you, and loved his headline: The Butler didn't do it.

Larry said...

You're way too kind to this film. While watching it, I was thinking either the screenwriter and director made everything up, or this guy and his family's life was nothing but tired civil rights' movies cliches. After the film, I checked it out and sure enough, almost everything that moved the plot was made up.

For instance (spoiler alert), he's got two sons in the movie--in real life there was one--just so the patriotic one can go to Vietnam and die, on the protagonist's anniversary no less. And then there's the other son going from one big civil rights moment to the next, even hanging out with Martin Luther King, and later running for office (all made up--in fact, the Butler was the one who met King, but I guess that didn't fit the movie's scheme).

Even uglier, the real man was raised to the highest position in the White House during the Reagan administration and then when he retired a few years later, Nancy Reagan invited him and his wife to a state dinner. It was one of the high points of his life, and he treasured till the end the photos he and his wife took with the Reagans. In the movie, the Game-Changing screenwriter decided to make it a bitter moment when the protagonist realizes he's been living a lie so often, so he can retire and start protesting the trumped-up South Africe issue (trumped up for the movie not in that people didn't argue over constructive engagement, but in that unlike the earlier civil rights struggles shown in the film, no one in America backed apartheid, as opposed to all those politicians--mostly Democrats--who supported segregation.)

And if that's not enough, at the end we actually get narration that points out what we're supposed to think, just in case we didn't get it. I wanted to like this movie too, but at every turn we had nothing but ridiculous and dishonest moments designed to teach us important lessons that we already know. I expect it to sweep the Oscars.

Hamid said...

Dixon, post with your real name and I'd be happy to debate with you. Unless, of course, you've just stepped out of a film screen and you actually are Dixon Steele.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the warning, Ken.

Todd Everett said...

John Cusack might have been good, but was he Dan Hedaya good?

Javier Silva said...

wow, (quoting the Onion's review) this was an important movie, about an important issues, and with importante people.

Ken the stunt casting did not help but as someone mentioned it was either that or do not make the movie.

Larry: i agree that there were importan changes made to the important story being told but waht's important is that we learn a lesson explicitly told at the end of the movie

This is not a subtle film at all and I love that most of the people posting have different opinions but yet remain fairly civil, which is a rarity nowadays on the internets.

Nelly Wilson said...

Ellen might be a better variety show host than Winfrey but as a chat show host all she does is tell the guest how wonderful they are, ask a few inane questions and give them a silly gift.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Hamid Disney does it all the time too. DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL, DISNEY'S THE MUPPETS...

mdv1959 said...

Forrest Whitaker is about the only reason I'd watch this. After reading this review I think I'll just re-watch "The Help".

Wayne said...

Can you believe Ike has been played by Robin Williams and Tom Selleck? Bald actors need not apply.

D. McEwan said...

Well, Disney does it to differentiate their versions from others. There are, after all, rather large differences between Lewis Carroll's Alice and Wonderland and Disney's Alice in Wonderland, or between James Barrie's Peter Pan and Walt Disney's Peter Pan. Etc. Etc. So much so that putting "Disney" before the title protects the original author from the blame for what Disney did to their story.

Cap'n Bob said...

I saw an ad that featured Hanoi Jane and knew I'd never sully my eyes with this flick. I'm glad to hear it sucks on its own merits.

R Baugh said...

At least we got one movie at covers civil rights pretty well and it will probably get overshadowed. Go see 42 if you want to be moved. It has some issues and could have been better but it will do. It wasn't sweeping and it didn't have a ton of stars, even forgot for a moment that it was Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, but it was solid.

Hamid said...

Nelly Wilson

Seriously? You're criticising Ellen for asking soft questions? Have you ever watched an Oprah interview? Calling them sycophantic would be understatement of the century. They're verbal genuflection. When she interviewed Barry Levinson for Toys, she asked "When did you realize you were such a masterful director?" Levinson is a brilliant director, Toys notwithstanding, but how is anyone with even a modicum of humility and modesty supposed to answer a question as inane as that?

Or how about the interview with Julia Roberts where they spent 5 minutes talking about each other's private jets. And don't get me started on all the alternative medicine snake oil salesmen who get a platform to peddle their garbage. The one who appeared to say all we have to do is say "We will cure cancer" and it will just happen, to which Oprah looked at the camera, tears in her eyes, and said "No words", followed by the audience whooping and applauding, ranks as quite possibly the single most offensive and mind numbingly stupid moment in TV history, not counting Baywatch Nights.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting investigative journalism from either Ellen or Oprah, but Ellen is David Frost compared to her.

Erika said...

Hamid, he had to put his name in the title because of the MPAA title registration dispute between Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. They already started marketing the movie as The Butler so putting his name in the title was a compromise.

Hamid said...

Erika, I understand, I already acknowledged my mistake above and apologised for my misunderstanding over the title. I don't mind admitting when I've got something wrong.

Marco said...

Friday Question: You already described how much you liked the Cheers set in an older post. Do you know what happened to the set when the Hollywood Entertainment Museum closed in 2007? I sat in the set back in 2003 and ejoyed it a lot - I hope they have not destroyed it ...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken: call it a Friday question. The British press today are all running the story (it's the silly season while everyone waits for Monday's bank holiday) about the award for the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Telegraph, like so many others, lists the top ten:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/edinburgh-festival/10251935/Funniest-joke-of-2013-Edinburgh-Fringe.html

And the bottom ten:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/edinburgh-festival/10252861/Least-funny-jokes-of-2013-Edinburgh-Fringe.html

Wondered if you had any thoughts.

wg

ODJennings said...

Like it, don't like, whatever, but give the Devils their due-- no one knows how to promote a movie like the Weinsteins. Give those boys a Driver's Ed movie to promote and in 6 weeks it'll have Oscar buzz.

Every casting decision was made based on the actor's ability to do an interview or generate an interesting story. I'm even convinced that the whole tempest in a teacup over the title was manufactured by the Weinsteins to generate free publicity and burn the name into our brains.

rockgolf said...

@OD: You overestimated the time for Oscar buzz... by 6 weeks. See the link in my name from The Daily Beast today.

VP81955 said...

The Oprah army is out, already trying to hypnotize the masses into publicly making sure she wins an Oscar, if only by intimidating the voters. God, these people are like robots, worse than the fanboy cult who believes Joss Whedon can do no wrong.

Rawsher 8 said...

Wayne: Robert Duvall has also played Eisenhower. Is he bald enough for you?

The definitive Eisenhower impersonator was Andrew Duggan. He played him in the aforementioned "Backstairs at the White House," and in a pair of TV movies. He also played LBJ in "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover." And, in "In Like Flint," he played a fictional President who is a combination of Eisenhower and Johnson.

Rawsher 8 said...

Oh, on the crucial question: Duggan was not bald, or at least did not admit to it (he might very well have been wearing a toupee). However, he did have a high forehead and a receding hairline, so he did not seem inappropriately hirsute to be Eisenhower.

Mike said...

Why's it have to be Lee Daniels' The Butler? You use that and it implies that there is a book called The Butler written by Lee Daniels. Kind of like Stan Lee's Superhero Movie.

Why not call it Oprah Winfrey's The Butler? Or how about Danny Strong's The Butler?

That was the biggest shocker for me. This movie is written by the guy who played Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and on Mad Men couldn't even write an ad, except for variations on the same theme.

Mark Mason said...

Ken,
You say that Jackie Kennedy still wearing the bloodstained pink suit when she arrived back in Washington on November 22, 1963 was "absurd." While it may seem so to you, that is, in fact, what happened. Furthermore, the film, which I just saw, does NOT show Jackie "tak{ing} time out to give the butler Kennedy's tie" as you say in your review: it shows her leaving the room, and Cecil comes home later (what day is unspecified) with a tie Jackie has given him. In fact, Eugene Allen, the inspiration for the Cecil character, DID receive a tie from Jackie Kennedy after the assassination.

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jan/26/nation/la-na-jackie-kennedy-pink-suit-20110127

http://entertainment.time.com/2013/08/16/what-the-butler-really-saw/

D. McEwan said...

"When did you realize you were such a masterful director?"

Wow. That's like the nice version of "When did you stop beating your wife?" What possible response could you expect to that? "Last Tuesday at 3:55 PM"? More approrpriate would be to slide off your chair onto the floor and explain that you did so because "I lost all butt traction from the saliva you left after kissing my butt like it was the love of your life." Mind you, if you asked Oprah "When did you realize you were God's Gift to talk shows?" she'd probably take it seriously, and tell you exactly when, at length. I've never seen the "magic" of Oprah, not as an actress and not as a talk show hostess.

I have close friend who is an Oprah disciple. When I've occasionally expressed disdain for Winfrey's - to me - unwatchable shows, she gone ballistic. "DON'T YOU DARE CRITICIZE OPRAH! SHE'S THE GREATEST WOMAN IN AMERICA!!! I'm not joking nor exaggerating. (I left wondering how she was only the greatest woman in America and not the entire world.) I had to keep track of when Oprah was on, because woe to he who phoned my friend when Oprah was on. "I can't talk now. Oprah is on." "Uh, she's a person on TV you've never met. I'm your friend who is actually a part of your life."

But the hype is working. My cousin, a very smart man with a PHd, who's a psychologist just posted over on my comments thread where I posted a link to this column on my Facebook page, that this movie should be "mandatory" viewing for everyone, but especially for white people. I disagreed, clinging to my lifelong position that no one should ever be forced to see any movie, not even a good one, let alone an Oprah ego-fest with absurd stunt casting.

chuckcd said...

So...it's a comedy?

mickey said...

Thought Whitaker was excellent, Winfrey decent, not distracting. I knew about all the cameos before seeing it so it did not take me out of the movie, and none of them except Liev Schreiber were caricatures bordering on ridiculous. The plot points were very contrived, but still, the movie overall was effective. And maybe if we're lucky, the Weinsteins will try to market his-and-her matching jumpsuits or whatever it was that Oprah and Forest were wearing when they got the bad news about their soldier son.

Dixon Steele said...

Thanks for the Spoiler, Mickey...

Anonymous said...

Dixon, if you don't see that one coming, you shouldn't be watching movies. That was perhaps as predictable as Avatar.

Jeffro said...

Robin Williams as Eisenhower. Even with the makeup, where's the resemblance. And I doubt he got the mannerisms right. The best Ike I saw on film was from the elderly actor who played him in The Right Stuff. Being that it was made 30 years ago, I doubt he's still alive.

Anonymous said...

Psych really needs to wind down. Couldn't they have had Dule Hill play the butler? Have Shawn play Eisenhower or Kennedy.

D. McEwan said...

Robert Beer played Eisenhower in The Right Stuff. The IMDb doesn't say whether he's still alive or not, but most of its cast still is. Beer's career seemed to be playing Eisenhower. The IMDb lists three credits for him, two as Dwight Eisenhower and one as David Eisenhower. No non-Eisenhower roles are listed for him.

Kellybelle said...

OMG--thank you. I thought I was the only person who thought this movie missed the mark. Two things:
1) I think movies that attempt to tackle history would do better to find a small moment and build a story around that. Spielberg didn't attempt to explain everything that ever had to do with the Holocaust; he chose the story of Oscar Schindler. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that. 2)I don't mean this in a negative way and I don't think a person should be limited to writing only what he or she has experienced, but I think this movie might have benefited from a Black writer. As a Black person, there were a couple moments that rang so false, I thought that it sounded like someone's research and not dialogue--like when Clarence Williams III was telling the young Gaines about showing one face to whites and another to Blacks. Well, duh, Black people know that and don't need to articulate that to each other.

And Oprah... to me, her whole performance was "Look, I hired an acting coach!" She's mentioned in the press that she had finally learned to cry on cue. That's not acting. That's something a reasonably good sociopath can do. Acting is connecting and making the audience feel soemthing--which she didn't do. Ok, thanks.

Anonymous said...

"Still, you should probably see it – unless you’re a diehard Republican (because you will hate it I guarantee you)."

Or, if you think Reagan was a decent President and roll your eyes at frothing at the mouth liberals who portray him as Satan.

Jimc said...

At first I thought Robin Williams was supposed to be Harry Truman. He resembles that president.