Sweeping in ambition and sometimes moving in execution, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is an epic that more closely resembles a made-for-TV movie or mini-series, albeit one from the high-minded heyday of TV movies, the ’70s. “Backstairs at the White House,” for instance.
Covering over eighty years of American history through the eyes of a White House butler and his family — decades of strife and conflict, from segregation to the election of Barack Obama to the presidency — “The Butler” features Oscar winner Forest Whitaker in the title role, Oscar nominee Oprah Winfrey as co-star, and Oscar winners Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Vanessa Redgrave in supporting roles.
We follow a sharecropper’s son who saw his father murdered by a white landowner (Alex Pettyfer) in 1920s Georgia, a boy raised to know service, that “The room should feel empty with you in it” by the matron of the house (Redrgave), who rose from N.C. and then D.C. hotel waiter and butler to the White House, just as Eisenhower (Williams) is deciding to send troops into Little Rock to integrate the schools.
No matter how careful the instructions from his peers (Lenny Kravitz, Gooding) about how he should “never listen or react to conversations,” Cecil hears all and sees all. And every now and then, Kennedy (James Marsden, a dead ringer for Bobby, too short for Jack) or Nixon (John Cusack) or Reagan (Alan Rickman, the most presidential of the lot) will actually ask his opinion, Cecil being the handiest black voter these seven presidents whom Cecil served know.
Meanwhile, at home, Cecil’s wife Gloria (Winfrey) drinks and tries to raise their two sons in the absence of a husband who lets his job come first.
“I don’t CARE what goes on in THAT house,” she grouses. “I care what goes on in THIS house.”
And well she should, because their college-bound son (David Oyelowo) is traveling through the ’60s and ’70s like an African American Forrest Gump — jailed as a Freedom Rider, fan of Malcolm X, a man in the hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr. just before his murder and later a Black Panther militant.
The strains of the times play out in pop music montages, news footage of assassinations and riots and Walter Cronkite detailing the horrors of the Vietnam War and annoyances of gas rationing.
As a movie, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — the title was the subject of Hollywood arbitration — is as ungainly as that title. The director of “Precious” created a maddeningly spotty exercise, covering too much too quickly, with clunky, pointless narration and soap opera-ish melodrama (Gloria drinks with their neighbor, the fresh Terrence Howard) taking attention from the sweep of history.
Daniels is at a loss to get all the history and adequate screen time for that embarrassment of acting riches. And the director of the atrocious “Paperboy” neglected to get convincing impersonations from some of the actors playing these famous public figures. Schreiber is a swaggering LBJ, but suggests no hint of an Texas accent, and Williams has little of Eisenhower’s commanding presence, though Cusack gets Nixon’s shifty-eyed desperation to be liked like Ike just right.
All that said, though, there are heartfelt moments that remind us why this “inspired by a true story” seemed moving enough to film. All this really did happen over the course of the life of one man (the real butler’s name was Eugene Allen), from lynchings and the murder of civil rights activists to an African-American president.
Whitaker’s stillness and dignity anchors the picture, and he lifts Winfrey’s game in their scenes. Gooding stands out as a wise-cracking, James-Brown impersonating fellow White House butler.
And it’s worth waiting through the clunky passages and off-key performances to catch Jane Fonda’s classy turn as Nancy Reagan, to see Rickman’s soulful yet steely performance as the president most often derided as “an actor” — Nancy’s husband.
The patchwork story and pacing robs “The Butler” of the wit and heart that might have made it a companion piece to the far simpler and more powerful “The Help.” Daniels settles for a soapy, preachy American history version of “Downton Abbey.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, James Marsden, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard
Credits: Directed by Lee Daniels, written by Danny Strong, based on the news article by Wil Haygood. A Weinstein Co. release
Running time: 2:12