Review: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' inspiring, emotionally engaging historical tale

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Looking to capture the same sort of early awards season buzz that "The Help" earned in 2010, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" should have no problem moving summer movie audiences and grabbing the attention of awards voters with this deeply emotional tale about a real-life butler who served under eight U.S. presidents over three decades. It's not a perfect movie, but it sure hits you where it counts.

The film is an "inspired by" picture, which gave Daniels the opportunity to take some dramatic liberties to help tell the true-life story of Eugene Allen's time as a butler at the White House. The historical facts about the title character's time with the commanders-in-chief have been checked and verified, although the story of his family life is broadened to help recount pivotal events surrounding the volatile racial climate of the times, the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and such life-altering events as the Vietnam War: all of which took place at the same time as Allen's service.

For the film, "The Butler" is Cecil Gaines (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker), the damaged son of a cotton picker in the South who in the late 1920s witnessed the rape of his mother and murder of his father. Despite being taken in by the mother (Vanessa Redgrave) of the owner of the plantation to be a "house (blank)" (among the first of many jarring uses of the N-word) to steer him away from further violence, Cecil eventually embarks on aimless path until he lands a job as a butler in the White House.

The sprawling, 80-year tale -- which Daniels has described as his "Forrest Gump" -- proceeds to find Cecil in the extraordinary company of such presidents as Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), and listens in on the deeply personal conversations they had with the butler during key moments of their respective administrations.

However, while Cecil proceeds to be grossly underpaid in comparison to his white counterparts in silent servitude, his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), rebels, taking a polar opposite path as a Freedom Rider who dives without hesitation into the forefront of Civil Rights movement. It's a move, because of his father's position at the White House, that puts the two at great odds.

See my review of "Lee Daniels' The Butler" on "KARE 11 News at 11" with Diana Pierce below.

Daniels -- whose name is in the title because of a legal flap that wouldn't allow the filmmakers use the title "The Butler" alone -- proves as he did with the extremely powerful drama "Precious" in 2009 that he's an incredibly gifted filmmaker, especially as he juxtaposes the stark contrasts between the lives of Cecil and Louis. He expertly allows the subtle relationships of his characters to play out in an atmosphere that is emotionally engaging. And while the film takes on very serious subject matters, Daniels still manages to find many humorous moments throughout to break the tension.

Of course, "The Butler" wouldn't be the triumph that it is without the participation of Whitaker, who gives his heart and soul to his subtle and dignified portrayal of Cecil; and Oprah Winfrey, who rises to the occasion in a tricky performance of his deeply flawed but caring wife, Gloria -- a supporting character whose presence is felt throughout the film. Oyelowo is brilliant as Louis as is Elijah Kelly, who plays the younger Gaines son (the sons are amalgam of characters, because in reality Allen had only one son). The film also boasts wonderful supporting turns by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil's fellow butlers.

The biggest flaws of "The Butler" stem from Daniels' curious casting of the presidents in the film. While Schreiber and particularly Marsden are impressive as Johnson and Kennedy, respectively, no amount of makeup can cover up Williams' weak portrayal of Eisenhower. Rickman's covered up, too, and while he fares better than Williams, the normally great actor's take on Reagan is still shaky (Rickman somewhat resembles the president with the help of prosthetics, but you can still hear hints of the actor's British accent under it all). Jane Fonda, fortunately, more than makes up for Rickman's shortcomings with a small, but slam-dunk turn as first lady Nancy Reagan.

Most embarrassing, though, is Cusack, who was woefully miscast as Nixon. For the younger people reading this, the late comedian Rich Little used to do impersonations of the president for a living -- and Cusack's performance comes off as a bad impersonation of Little impersonating Nixon. Worse yet, there appears to have been little effort to make Cusack look like Nixon, unlike the other "presidents" in the cast. While his scenes are only brief, Cusack's presence is nothing but a major distraction.

Thankfully there are enough great performances in "The Butler" to make you forget the bad ones. Like the times it portrays, "The Butler" has its share of deep flaws, but at the same time possesses the same kind of drive, commitment and heart to overcome them.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler," rated PG-13 stars out of 4.

See the trailer for "The Butler" below.

What other local critics are saying ...

Kristen Tillotson gives the film 3 stars in her Star Tribune review, calling the film "ham-fisted, overreaching, melodramatic and, despite its flaws, worth the ride."

Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press gives the film 2 1/2, saying Whitaker's "towering performance is reason enough" to see the film. However, Hewitt notes that he wishes the film would have concentrated more on his character than what was going on around him.

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he also reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11.” As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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