Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: "The Butler" May Be Clumsy, But Its Heart Saves the Day

Forrest Whitaker
Ask any American person who has been through school, and they should be able to tell you a vague outline of racism in the nation's history. Almost everyone knows who Martin Luther King Jr. is and how segregation worked. It would be a challenge to make these subjects into interesting, original narratives that expresses a different side of it. While two of the more prominent examples are The Help and the wildly anachronistic mess of Django Unchained, they don't necessarily bring anything new to the story. In a way, that is what makes director Lee Daniels' latest The Butler one of the more interesting peeks into modern American history more than its counterparts.

For many, The Butler will just be one of those prestige pictures that everyone hears about. However, my speculation came from a place of more discretion. Despite having success and landing multiple nominations for his 2009 film Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, his other credit was the erotic, trashy, racist failure of a film called The Paperboy. While it landed a Golden Globe nomination, it did leave me thinking that Daniels was a one trick pony and that he was doomed to be a director out of touch with the art form. The very idea that he would cast Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower was proof enough that he was crazy. Whether or not that meant he was a genius is another story.

The Butler turns out to fall somewhere in the middle. While there are small nuances that keep the film from feeling emotionally deep, this labor of love manages to succeed on effort alone. With the story of Cecil B. Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) on his journey from tragic orphan to presidential butler for over 30 years, there is a lot of history covered not only in the White House, but with his own family. There's talk of infidelity with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes an activist who shortly somehow was affiliated with Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis), Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. The dynamic of the father-son relationship is enough to give this take on history an authentic approach that essentially creates the core.

While the run time feels too short to do the 30+ years of history justice, it does highlight key moments in insightful ways. With the central theme being about race relations, the story thrives on the familiar beats from racism in the south to the Vietnam War. They all impacted the Gaines family in varying ways, and the juxtaposition is nicely stated by King Jr. to reflect the film's ability to do everything without seeming rote. As much as it pains Louis, the butler is a sign of success and positive image of African Americans in the culture. Even if Cecil at times seems too simpleminded or cares to discuss politics, this parallel action manages to make the history come to life in a fresh way.

While not overtly funny, the film is full of life. Gloria is consistently cracking jokes and lightening the mood while Cecil's coworkers all manage to mix their opinions on segregation with day-to-day problems with work. It is a universe that may feel novelty and present things almost fleetingly, but what it does share manages to be interesting. Even when the film chooses to pit Cecil as a sort of messenger to the varying presidents, it feels almost like convenient escapism. To hear Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) call Cecil the best butler almost serves as the film's attempt at an emotional climax. The surface may be rough and at times sort of goofy, but the subtext creates a strong core that at least keeps the film interesting.

Of all of the performances, none stand out more than Oyelowo. When pitting himself against the subdued relaxation of Whitaker, he manages to pack in rage and even makes a good case against In the Heat of the Night. He is the activist that the film needs to pull the film into an excellent mix of lifestyles. Without him, the film is essentially one note escapism and keeps the film from ever having a strong sense of emotion. Winfrey is also entertaining, even if her character seems to be more comic relief than strong female figure.

Left to right: Robin Williams and Whitaker
The presidential figures are a different story. While the make-up and costume work on this film is excellent and makes everything feel important to the time period, the acting selection felt a little disjointed. Williams does fine as Eisenhower, though it is largely thanks to the prosthetic work to make him appear old and balding. Of the cast, the most believable is Rickman's Reagan, who almost pushes uncanniness too far. John Cusack's Nixon remains the most entertaining, even with a poor accent choice, he has a madcap vulnerability to him. The worst would have to be Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson. Maybe it was because his part included a bathroom scene that totally shifts the mood, but he added very little to the overall story in portrayal.

The Butler is a mess of a film, but a rather successful one at that. It manages to have a gratifying ending and takes the story into interesting directions. The dynamic between father and son and how it reflects their social conditions is impressive. Even if the presidents at times feel like they are secondary to the actual story, they aren't usually wasted performances. At very least, the film is worth checking out on the grounds that this is Daniels being able to be a serious director while also having enough nuances to have personality. It may have trouble associating characters at times, but for history buffs, it shouldn't be too hard. It's ability to tackle racism and segregation and make it a family matter is enough to make this one of the more fascinating, ambitious films of the year, even if it isn't always successful.

Left to right: Whitaker and David Oyelowo
I will get the obvious out of the way: we have to get David Oyelowo into the Best Supporting Actor race pronto! While Whitaker is no slouch as the lead, the young actor is the real backbone of the film and makes it all the more impressive. He adds awkward rage and frustration that drives almost every character in the story while also presenting a side of history that usually isn't discussed. While it still feels novelty that the Gaines family managed to have this radical of a parallel on history, I think that it is the most effective aspect. There is talks of Oprah Winfrey getting nominated, though her role came across more as campy and fun than anything really deep or moving, save for the occasional outburst. 

I would also just like to get Alan Rickman nominated for pulling off an impressive Ronald Reagan impersonation, but the screen time doesn't even clock in at four minutes and isn't that much a show stopper. Instead, I would like to suggest that this film is one of the locks already for Best Make-Up and Best Costumes (along with hopefully The Great Gatsby). Period pieces have always stood a good chance in these categories. The Iron Lady managed to beat the far more complex Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 despite just slapping some goo on Meryl Streep's face. At least this feels more ambitious and stands a greater chance of getting recognized. The work that goes into the facial features of the presidents is impressive, and I would be annoyed if it didn't get recognition.

While the film has flaws, I do feel like it is almost certainly going to stand a good chance of landing in the Best Picture race alongside Fruitvale Station. With 12 Years a Slave on the horizon, this looks to be a very racial year. There isn't a problem with that, as it is more encouraging than sad to know that film is starting to explore other less anglophile films. Of these three, I think that The Butler stands the best chance of showing strong, if just because of its depiction of history and racism similar to that of former nominee The Help. Also, while far removed in depiction, it does share an array of historical moments with some comical-yet-dramatic beats akin to Forrest Gump. It does seem almost more universal in appeal and therefore is able to appeal to a larger group of voters.

I don't see this film making Best Director or any subsequent films that I haven't discussed. While it is an impressively made film, it does have too many flaws to be in the Best Director or Best Adapted Screenplay nominations. The presence will also largely be thanks to Lee Daniels himself, whose success with Precious put him on the map and managed to earn him respect. While I worry that The Paperboy and its abysmal failures have tarnished it, I feel like maybe the Academy isn't aware of its existence and will not judge it too harshly. While a film should be judged on its own merits, there has been speculation of bias before, including the radical theory of when Eddie Murphy lost Best Supporting Actor for Dreamgirls to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. While there have rarely been admittance to this, it isn't totally unimaginable. Some people have great luck with nominations (such as David O. Russell) and some don't. I just feel like The Butler is going to be more of a success story than not.

There is argument that it is the start of Oscar Buzz as well. True, it looks and feels like a prestige picture, but technically it started with Fruitvale Station and Blue Jasmine. This is just one of the small bumps before we get into the bigger picture. However, it isn't too bad of a thought that this would be the film to start it. After a rough July, we are now in the midst of August, and it has been quite an entertaining, successful month for movies. Can't wait for the next one.

Is The Butler going to land some acting nominations? Is Forrest Whitaker too nuanced for a Best Actor slot? Why does everyone want Oprah Winfrey to be nominated?

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