Monday, August 19, 2013
The Cinema File #238: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" Review
Lee Daniels' The Butler, not to be confused with some obscure short film from 1916 nobody ever heard of until a frivolous lawsuit, is as the court ordered new title suggests brought to us by the illustrious director of The Paperboy, easily one of the worst films of 2012 now perhaps best known as "that movie where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron's face." That Daniels would follow up a sleazy 70's exploitation pastiche with a sweeping crowd pleasing biopic and civil rights movement travelogue is only the first surprise of The Butler, the second being that its actually not that bad. It still has all the hallmarks of Daniels' limited capacity as a director, its simplistic, about as subtle as a brick to the head, and often gets lost in weird and pointless tangents, but the worst elements of his style are mitigated by a genre that would seem to lend itself to his particular brand of shallow excess, and if you dig a little deeper and allow yourself an off kilter perspective, I think there might be something more going on here than just a patriotic portrait.
Despite the title, The Butler is actually two parallel stories, one of the titular Butler Cecil Gaines who served in the staff at the White House for 34 years through seven presidents, and his son Louis, a firebrand activist who manages to Forrest Gump his way through almost every pivotal moment of the Civil Rights movement. Loosely based on a Washington Post article, many people going into the movie might be surprised by how little of the film's story actually corresponds to real life beyond the initial premise of a long-serving butler, with much of the son's increasingly implausible involvement in a series of historical events being dramatic license. Ordinarily I'd come down a little harder on this, but in a summer movie season where one of the most successful films at the box office was "based on a true story" about ghosts and demons being real, I can't really complain too much, and just based on my own experience as an amateur screenwriter, I can see how they might have needed to add a little padding to the epic saga of the guy who gives important people their tea and then quickly leaves the room.
What happens in that famous room was the draw of the movie for me, and its a bit disappointing to find out how little time is spent with the presidents considering the mostly stellar cast brought in to bring them to life, and how much of the rest of the story is invented out of whole cloth. Each president gets maybe two or three scenes at most, and every time the focus shifts away from them and to the family struggles of the Gaines clan or the pseudo historical cliffs notes, I just want to go back to the Oval Office for the next one. The best is easily Leiv Schriber as Lyndon Johnson, probably the most complicated and interesting personality of those on display, and by the end I wanted the whole movie to have been a wacky buddy comedy with LBJ and his Butler on a cross country adventure. Robin Williams, who I generally like in dramatic roles is wasted in a cameo, John Cusack's Nixon was better than I expected, and Alan Rickman's Reagan is the closest physical resemblance, but he doesn't get the impression quite right. We don't even get Ford or Carter for some reason, and also James Marsden is there for a scene or two, if you're into that.
Whenever you deal with a movie set in the era of the Civil Rights Movement, there's always this strange disconnect between the reality being depicted and the needs of a dramatic narrative structure, where the expectation of subtlety must give way to the only way one can really encapsulate a period of such outrageous evil. It's the same thing that happens whenever you see a movie trying to realistically depict the holocaust or any other time and place marked by extreme man made horror, where the action can often come across as exaggerated and over the top, only because the events themselves were so far from the bounds of normal human behavior. The first shot of this film is a lynching, and my first impulse as a moviegoer is to feel manipulated by something so obvious and heavy handed right out of the gate, and it only gets worse from there, but as I try to think of the less obvious ways to do a movie like this, I can't really think of one that doesn't in some way diminish what should be the impact of this story. Daniels' is well known for making his points with a sledgehammer, but here he's at least found a script where that just so happens to be the best tool for the job.
The poster outside of my theater for this film had Gaines staring out of a window of the White House at a mass of protesters holding up signs with slogans like "I Have A Dream," with text across his back reading: "One Quiet Voice Can Ignite A Revolution." With its sweeping score and melodrama surrounding a contentious historical period, on the surface this would seem like the perfect way to market a movie like The Butler, until you actually watch the movie and realize that that tag line is exactly the opposite point the film is making. Cecil Gaines is not a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, at least as depicted in the film, as much as he is a silent scion for the very status quo the movement sought to justifiably upend. Gaines is a man who has learned to survive by acquiescing to the broken system he was born into, only to learn that the son he rejected for his perceived radicalism was right to fight against it all along. His career, the thing that makes him notable enough to merit a biopic, is not one representing a profound and fulfilling life lived, but a life wasted on the wrong side of history. This isn't my interpretation; its clearly the point the film is trying to make by the end, and for me at least, this was a feature, not a bug.
One could argue that by the standards of every other movie like this, The Butler is a failure, because its main character is not ultimately the hero of his own story, but this was my favorite part, and the main reason why I'm so forgiving of all the problems that come along with Lee Daniels' directing style. In a way, The Butler is an anti-biopic, a twist on the formula where we follow a character with every expectation that by the end his position or world view will be vindicated, because why else would we wish to follow him, and then in the end, it doesn't. We learn that all of those moments in the White House where he could have and should have spoken up about the plight of African Americans when so proximate to the most powerful (white) men in America, but chose not to, were moments to regret rather than celebrate. It would be like if in Forrest Gump, we find out in the end that the reason Forrest is sitting on that bench is that he is a homeless person who sleeps there, all his past successes for nought if they even happened at all; oh, and Lt. Dan killed himself. Daniels has always had a subversive streak to him, his movies mired in depression and depravity, and if anyone else had made this movie I might think I was just reading too much into it, but there's just too much evidence for me to deny that this was intentional.
I could be wrong of course. I have these crazy theories about movies sometimes. I'm the guy who thinks Transformers 2 is Michael Bay's brilliant intentional parody of his own style, and nobody believes me on that one. Even if my take away is completely accidental, Lee Daniels' The Butler is still worth the watch if you have any interest in the politics or cultural issues on display, even with its inescapable problems. Yes, it is sometimes inelegant in its handling of very sensitive topics, and lacks any measure of subtlety, but no more than its current box office competition Elysium, and at least this movie does some of the things it tries to do right. It's certainly leaps and bounds better than 42, the last Civil Rights Era biopic to get a mainstream release, if only for dealing with matters of import rather than the historical shift of something as trifling as the color barrier in baseball. The acting is top notch all around and carries the story a long way, and its entertaining and crowd pleasing enough to justify most of the schmaltz and pathos. If it looks at all like it would appeal to you, it most certainly will, and if it doesn't seem like your thing, give it a chance. It usually isn't mine, but I did, and I was pleasantly surprised.