Review: The Butler (2013)

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Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Danny Strong
Cast: Forest Whitaker, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Elijah Kelley, Terrence Howard, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda & almost everyone else in Hollywood…
Runtime: 132 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUA7rr0bOcc]

Loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American White House butler who first came to the media’s attention in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election victory, The Butler attempts to cover Allen’s entire life in the space of just over two hours. Allen is renamed Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) and his life is examined through the context of the civil rights movement – with lots of liberties taken to “Hollywoodize” the tale – as we follow his career under seven different Presidents. The film covers everything from Cecil’s childhood to his early days as a house servant, his marriage to his wife Gloria (Winfrey), his problematic relationship with his son Louis (Oyelowo) and how he juggled his personal politics with his work under each administration. A lot to cover in 131 minutes, I’m sure you’ll agree…

There’s been a trend recently (perhaps since Obama’s election, though it probably started before then) of films using complex political issues as the background for a more personal story. Though one doesn’t wish to judge these films too harshly, the trivialising effect that they can have is undeniable. See Lincoln, for example, a film that tries to juggle the great President’s personal life with his professional drive to abolish slavery. It’s far from a bad film but it is, as so many like it tend to be, a film that is unable to pay due attention to either of its threads. The result is always the same; the politics become little more than a feint through which the personal life can be explored while the personal story falls victim to its insignificance in the grand scheme of the political history. The Butler is no exception to this trend.

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The main problem with The Butler is that it is a very simplistic bit of cinema. There are no surprises and no deviations from type and, as such, if you’ve ever seen any other biopic before you can pretty much predict every beat of the story. See, for example, the scene in which Cecil is celebrating his birthday. It’s a jovial, intimate affair complete with soft music and sexual frisson. Alas, thanks to the film’s narrow limitations with regards to plot, character development and political history, you just know that the fun won’t last long. So predictable was the film’s dramatic trajectory that I literally started counting down the seconds until the doorbell rang and the next bout of injustice and tragedy was delivered. You see, for all of the attempts to celebrate the life of Eugene Allen via the medium of Cecil Gaines, The Butler is almost unbearably maudlin because it has no option not to be.

This is a problem that dogs the entire film. It’s predictable in the extreme and though the attempt to cover over sixty years’ worth of complicated history in a two hour film is a valiant one, it simply doesn’t work. We’re shown lots of snapshots of the main character’s life but the film fails to contextualise them; as a result, it can’t help but feel melodramatic and contrived. Like the recent attempt to cram the majority of Nelson Mandela’s life into a two-hour film The Butler consistently fails to hit its mark because there’s just far too much detail to cover, the result being that it feels simultaneously bloated and empty. It jumps, often sporadically, from one President to the next, briefly exploring key events in the history of the civil rights movement before moving on again. There’s no political or social context outside of a very crude “look how this man tackled racism from within the system” mantra that seems, at least to me, unbefitting of what Eugene Allen actually achieved.

Having said that, this doesn’t mean that the film is apolitical. Far from it, it very much wears its heart on its sleeve and makes sure you know exactly where it’s coming from. It’s a liberal-minded film that makes all the right points but fails to treat them with the nuance and complexity that they warrant. It doesn’t come across as preachy so much as it comes across as shallow; the characters are idealised, major events are simplified and the delivery of the film’s key themes is terribly ham-fisted. What this means, then, is that everything is spelled out for you. The audience is told what to think, what to feel and how to react by Daniels’ bland direction and Strong’s inelegant screenplay. It wants to be both a personal film about the life of Eugene Allen and a political film about the civil rights movement. As such, both of these threads go under-explored.

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That’s not to say, however, that certain aspects of The Butler aren’t good. It’s a very easy film to watch, and thanks to its constantly moving nature it never becomes boring. One has to commend Butler and Strong for making a film with such an ambitious scope, and though it often fails to hit its targets there are a few moments, brief as they may be, in which the emotions are well earned. This is largely down to Whitaker who is consistently solid throughout the film. It’s certainly not a life enhancing performance but it’s passable and engaging enough to keep the audience relatively entertained. The vast ensemble of stars who star as President are all fine, though the interpretation of these characters is terribly one-note (Nixon, for example, is constantly shifty, while Kennedy oozes charm and charisma… and then gets shot about 3 minutes later) while Oprah Winfrey – a woman it is simply impossible to like – is actually pretty strong as Gloria, even though she’s essentially playing a version of herself.

One has to admire what The Butler was trying to achieve but it ultimately comes across as a failed piece of Oscar bait. The all-star cast, the subject matter and the “true” nature of the story can’t hide the fact that it’s one of the most generic, flavourless films I’ve seen in quite some time. It thrives on mediocrity; it’s never bad but it never quite manages to elevate itself to “good” either, the fault for which is on Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. The Butler simply cannot keep up with events so it quickly turns into the cinematic equivalent of a photo album; it’s nice to look at and gives you some idea of what was happening, but never attempts to tell you an actual story. I can’t be too harsh on it because I found it a pleasant and ultimately inoffensive watch but it’s simply impossible to ignore just how heavy-handed and lacking in narrative coherence it all is.

Give it a watch if you like biopics / ensemble films. Other than that though, there’s nothing on offer here that deserves your attention all that much.

★★½

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