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DIRECTOR LEE DANIELS’ ‘BUTLER’ IS THE NEW BOSS AT THE BOX OFFICE—BUT WHAT DO THE CRITICS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT HIS LUCRATIVE CROWD-PLEASER? CHECK OUT THE REVIEWS BELOW AND FIND OUT...

 

 

Mr.  Daniels has told the story of the civil rights movement in the bold colors of costume pageantry and the muted tones of domestic drama. He also throws in a few bright splashes of crazy, over-the-top theatricality, in the form of outrageous period-appropriate outfits and startling celebrity cameos, as well as dabs of raucous comedy. You may hear it said, in praise of “The Butler,” that it shows this director in a more restrained, responsible frame of mind than his earlier films did. This may be true—most movies not directed by John Waters can be described as more restrained than “The Paperboy”—but it misses both the subtlety of Mr. Daniels’s previous movies and the wild exuberance of this one...The history of racism in America, and of efforts to overcome it, is usually addressed by Hollywood with a solemn, anxious, churchly hush and flattened into a tableau of villains and saints. Mr. Daniels and the screenwriter, Danny Strong, understand that both the horror and the heroism are connected with everything else that makes America such a complicated, interesting, appalling and glorious place: our politics, our popular culture, our deepest desires and our simplest habits. Making the topic safe and boring is no good for anyone.-- A.O. SCOTT, The New York Times.

While Daniels purports to make a biography of Cecil Gaines, a Black Southerner who went from picking cotton in Georgia to serving as butler in the White House for seven Presidential administrations, the film primarily displays Daniels’ opportunism. Taking advantage of our strange, polarized political moment, The Butler only makes noise about race–simplifying the history that Gaines lived through from Jim Crow to 2008–implying that Gaines’s story prepared the way for the election of Barack Obama...Everyone here, from limousine liberal parade of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave to the various Presidential caricatures (Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman), look like waxworks. From the beginning, Forest Whitaker plays the title role as a gaunt, wizened symbol of oppression and endurance–a Morgan Freeman figure of quiet dignity and rectitude. His wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons (David Oyewelo and Isaac White) seem like appendages rather than family...The Butler may feature a largely Black cast under a Black director’s baton, but it’s really a movie for whites who seek self-congratulatory lessons rather than entertainment...The entire film exploits subtle and overt American racial violence. The first striking image poses a lynching next to the American flag. Such cheap, Spike Lee rhetoric trivializes history...Daniels panders to the hip-hop attitude that Black youth know more about survival than their hard-working ancestors. The scene of Gaines driving through urban chaos in response to MLK’s assassination is as phony as the riot scenes in Dreamgirls. Pandering to history and violence lacks the political detail of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles’ Panther; this more resembles Tarantino’s unrealistic s&m circus Django Unchained. These discomforting prevarications are angled toward Obama’s “Tonight is your answer” election speech—turning historical pain into shallow, maudlin victory. Daniels’ tendency to falsify Black American experience and then exploit it is as offensive as Spielberg-Kushner’s factitious Lincoln.–ARMOND WHITE, City Arts

Daniels certainly tries. The director of "Precious" (2009) and last year’s gleefully awful "The Paperboy,“ Daniels trails Cecil through his near-slave childhood, a civil rights movement that impassions one son (David Oyelowo), a Vietnam War that draws in another (Elijah Kelley) and an election that results in the first African American president. What the film never settles on is a point of view: Is the subservience that makes Cecil a success as a butler (“You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve,” he’s told early on at the White House) something to be admired or decried? Is Cecil someone, as a character in the film points out, who by virtue of being hardworking and trustworthy defies racial stereotypes and advances his people? No, his powerlessness, ultimately, is something shameful...But even as Daniels strains to emphasize the impotence Cecil feels, as he watches cavalier decisions about black men being made by white men, the director can’t resist the commercial impulse to make Cecil a hero. And you can’t quite have it both ways without making a movie with a personality disorder. –JOHN ANDERSON, The Washington Post

Lee Daniels is not someone who has much use for subtlety. He likes extremes—screaming mothers throwing televisions at their daughters, tarty women urinating on jellyfish victims, casting ideas that are often little more than stunts. Yet given a good actor, he can get a very good performance, and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" has two dandy ones at its heart...A large man with a gentle mien, Whitaker can be a great actor, especially when he twists that persona around (as he did with his Oscar-winning work in "The Last King of Scotland"). Too often, though, he doesn't get that chance, and merely roams the edges of movies. (Is there anyone who's done more ensemble work?) Here, though, he has the opportunity to do more, and to create a fully dimensional person—an immensely decent and patient man who answers rudeness with quiet dignity, and whose unfailing elegance and tireless work ethic give the lie to every racist slur...Whitaker's work is beautifully controlled throughout, and he's partnered well by Oprah Winfrey, as his wife. It's too bad she hasn't been given more of a character to play—she can be a bit of a one-note nag, a wife who drinks and grumbles because her husband's always at work—but Winfrey also gives her life and laughter and, yes, lustiness..."The Butler" is not a great movie. It's too obviously a careful tour through American history, and while some sequences work—particularly the various attacks on civil-rights workers—too much of it feels as flat and cheap as a film strip. But it's a movie with two great performances in it. And expect to be hearing a lot more about both of them before this year's awards season is done.—STEPHEN WHITTY, The Star-Ledger

Inspiring if not inspired, Lee Daniels' The Butler is a sort of Readers' Digest overview of the 20th century American civil rights movement centered on an ordinary individual with an extraordinary perspective. This fictionalized account of a Southern black man who worked as a White House butler under seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan is a very middle-of-the-road movie politically and aesthetically with myriad issues to carp about. But the long arc of this man's story, which begins in a Georgia cotton field and ends with an invitation back to his longtime work place to meet the first black president of the United States, describes a personal, racial and national journey in a way that is quite moving and will have a powerful effect on all manner of audiences, with the presumed exception of highbrows and real leftists...even with all contrivances and obvious point-making and familiar historical signposting, Daniels' The Butler is always engaging, often entertaining and certainly never dull...This is not an artful, tidy or sophisticated film, but its subject and his stationary odyssey are of such a singular nature that, as a great playwright once wrote, attention must be paid to such a person. –TODD McCARTHY, The Hollywood Reporter

On the surface, Daniels tells a stock tale about creating and surviving the civil rights movement, but the director wrenches the tired sentimentalism and past-tense detachment that defines similar projects apart with an experiential urgency, part of what is quickly becoming an inimitable style. Following “The Paperboy,” a surprisingly effective hit of tawdriness, Daniels here cleverly and quietly pushes his talent for hashing out visceral, violent emotions into unexpected dramatic terrain, creating an alluringly anxious film out of a life of slowly decaying compliance. That’s exactly what makes the film's final moment, in which Cecil snaps at a White House staffer for presuming to tell him where the oval office is, so immensely satisfying. After biting his tongue for so long, Cecil discards his carapace, if only to tell someone that he knows what he's doing.—CHRIS CABIN, Slant Magazine

The Butler—a sort of mini-history of late 20th-century black America as seen through the eyes of one longtime White House domestic worker, played by Forest Whitaker—is blunt where it needs to be. Sometimes it's too didactic or sentimental. But unlike Daniels's previous pictures, Precious and The Paperboy, it doesn't pretend to audacious storytelling. Daniels is that rare contemporary filmmaker who's not afraid of melodrama. The Butler is so old-school it feels modern: Stylistically, it could have been made 30 years ago, but its time is now...In Precious, the characters were walking symbols for the worst horrors of inner-city life. The Butler puts its characters first. Daniels re-creates some of the most potent and horrific images of the civil rights era, including those of young black protesters being blasted with firehoses. But his approach is, for the most part, more personal than instructional. You can see where everyone's coming from in The Butler, why some characters are afraid to ask for more while others dare to demand it. Daniels's history lesson isn't always graceful. At times The Butler suggests, far too optimistically, that the presence of servants of color in the White House actually helped shape policy...Then again, one person's history lecture is another's common sense and straight talk. When Cecil says, in voiceover, "Any white man can kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it," it's impossible not to think of Florida today. –-STEPHANIE ZACHAREK, The Village Voice

Ungainly and overly ambitious, “The Butler” tries to encompass too much history within too narrow a framework. Daniels utilizes Cecil as a "Zelig"-like character to reflect three decades of social and racial upheaval. Although Whitaker gives a sturdy, commendable performance, his character is made to bear too much symbolic weight. And having a parade of presidents hurried through the piece–played none too convincingly by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (Nixon), and Alan Rickman (Reagan)–only adds to the film’s once-over-lightly, flashcard quality...Winfrey is good, though, demonstrating yet again that she’s an actress and not just a celebrity playing an actress. Moments in this film, particularly in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., hit home. Given the subject matter, how could they not? But it’s also a bit weird–almost Pirandellian--watching Winfrey play a woman who cries during Obama’s election victory speech. In that moment, it’s unavoidable: We’re not watching Gloria, we’re watching Oprah, the president’s close friend and major touter.—PETER RAINER, Christian Science Monitor

Daniels’ blunt, go-for-broke approach provides for many clunky moments (and some unintended chuckles) in his ambitious new film The Butler...But the director’s sometimes absurd bravado—along with Forest Whitaker’s grave, wise performance in the title role—is what gives this outsized and sometimes lumbering film its irrefutable emotional power...None of the actors playing presidents—not even Alan Rickman, who’s the most credible of the bunch as an unctuous Ronald Reagan—are given enough dialogue or onscreen time to emerge as anything more than wax figures (most of whom would not meet Madame Tussaud’s standards for verisimilitude)...Winfrey’s performance as the blowsy, hard-drinking but essentially good-hearted Gloria isn’t exactly an accomplished feat of acting—you never forget she’s Oprah—but such is the talk-show legend’s verve and chutzpah that she makes Gloria consistently fun to be around (especially in the late scenes when she’s given the chance to dish out some dryly folksy old-lady humor). -–DANA STEVENS, Slate

Viewers familiar with Daniels’s idiosyncratically vulgar work might be disappointed that there’s little here that compares to Nicole Kidman loosing a yellow stream on Zac Efron’s jellyfish stings in The Paperboy (2012). But look beyond The Butler’s dewy-eyed, seemingly Wikipedia-sourced trappings (as in the HBO movies Recount and Game Change, screenwriter Danny Strong treats history like the ultimate “then this happened!” checklist) and you’ll see Daniels hasn’t gone Oscar-bait-crazy. At its most daring, the film acts as a subtly incendiary corrective to Hollywood’s subservient treatment of blacks, staging scenes that you’d expect to see in any number of end-of-year historical biopics complete with a celebrity who’s who—Robin Williams! John Cusack! Alan Rickman!—as the leaders of the free world, except the focus is almost entirely on Cecil. (Whitaker truly makes the most of what could have been a one-note role, conveying every one of his character’s complicated emotions, even when attempting, by orders, to go entirely unnoticed.) –KEITH UHLICH, Time Out New York

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is neither as good as it might have been nor as bad as survivors of "The Paperboy" may have feared. An ambitious and overdue attempt to create a Hollywood-style epic around the experience of black Americans in general and the civil rights movement in particular, it undercuts itself by hitting its points squarely on the nose with a 9-pound hammer... the director's contempt for subtlety, weakness for cliché and perennial determination to wring every last drop of emotion out of a situation are inevitably factors here. Nevertheless, "The Butler" reveals Daniels' ability to create believable black middle class situations that are so hard to come by on mainstream screens. But paralleling this gift, and hampering "The Butler," is Daniels' tin ear when it comes to white folks, individuals who do not have a fraction of the recognizable humanity of the black characters even in the rare moments when they're not being racists or morons or both...Daniels' pulp instincts do lead to vivid sequences such as the intercutting of a White House dinner with that Woolworth sit-in, but this is one significant film where less would have been a whole lot more.--KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times

The title was changed from "The Butler" to "Lee Daniels' The Butler" for legal purposes, but the fourth directing credit from the eccentric filmmaking voice behind "Precious" and "The Paperboy" marks the least distinctive of Daniels' career. That's a plus: Until a climax that resurrects the euphoria of the 2008 election, Daniels wisely allows the material to work on its own terms...In fact, "The Butler" carries an authenticity that sustains it through its cloying stretches. While black presidential butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is a fictional creation, the character's story draws from the real-life experiences of Eugene Allen, who served through eight administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan. Daniels portrays Gaines' life in a straightforward fashion, playing up the sentimentality in tandem with its historical weight--hardly a surprise for such blatant Oscar bait. Working within those expectations, Daniels has a delivered a fairly thoughtful period drama. Indeed, it's a far more tolerable portrait of race in America than "The Help,"which was part of the 2011 awards season race in much the same way that "The Butler" has already entered the 2013 edition.—ERIC KOHN, indieWIRE

There's no denying the stumbles that mar this alternately riveting and risible historical epic (big stars in bad makeup doing cameos as American presidents–yikes!). Yet Lee Daniels' The Butler holds you, provokes you and ultimately moves you...Whitaker works beautifully with Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, Cecil's not-so-dutiful wife. Gloria sublimates her frustration over her husband's 24/7 devotion to the Oval Office by finding sham solace in booze and a sleazy affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard). Winfrey is a full-throttle wonder, filling her role with heart soul and a healing resilience. -–PETER TRAVERS, Rolling Stone

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is crudely powerful. You can object to the thuggish direction and the script that’s a series of signposts, but not the central idea, which is genuinely illuminating. An elderly black man, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), sits in the White House and rethinks his life: the murder of his cotton-picking father, who dared to glower at a white master who’d molested Cecil’s mother; his training as a “house n-----” by a plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave); and his subsequent education as a waiter and then butler in the (white) halls of power...Cecil learns to have two faces, one he shows to his own people, one blankly subservient. While presidents like Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ grapple with civil rights for African-Americans, Cecil holds his tongue—all while his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is beaten to a pulp for sitting with fellow activists at a whites-only lunch counter. In one elaborate sequence, Daniels crosscuts between the exquisite obeisance of the father at a state dinner and the bloody assault on the son, who goes on to be a Freedom Rider and a Black Panther. Over and over Daniels wallops you—but the meaning of what he’s showing isn’t as obvious as it first appears...As Cecil, Whitaker stands outside himself. He’s so finely tuned that you can see—or at least intuit—the brain working (and heart breaking) under his mask. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria, and I never thought she’d be able to shed her Queen of TV persona. The character is broadly drawn (she’s an alcoholic), but Winfrey manages to go back in time and capture the self-loathing of a woman with no power...Lee Daniels’ The Butler ends with the election of Barack Obama—another signpost. The movie seems to have been made with one eye on the White House screening room, but in our less cynical moments we can acknowledge that that will be a hell of a screening.—DAVID EDELSTEIN, New York Magazine

As the film skims Forrest Gump-style through turbulent decades and various inhabitants of the Oval Office (a fun but distracting parade of famous faces, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans), Cecil struggles with his messier home life. It's the only place where his gift for orderliness fails him. His wife (a beautifully nuanced Oprah Winfrey) is an alcoholic, and his older son (David Oyelowo) is a rebellious civil rights activist. Neither can draw this Invisible Man out of his shell. As Cecil, Whitaker is mesmerizing. The actor seems to shrink into his imposing frame, summoning a performance of quiet, bottled-up force. There's no question that Daniels, the director of 2009's Precious, deserves some of the credit for that. But as undeniably moving and powerful as his film is, it could have used more of that subtlety. The fact that he even comes close makes The Butler worth seeing. --CHRIS NASHAWATY, Entertainment Weekly

“The Butler,” though certainly high-minded, is a fluent, fast-moving entertainment—an intricate gimmick movie with a heart...Lee Daniels, after the disastrous “Paperboy,” in which he couldn’t figure out where to put the camera when there were more than two characters in a scene, has pulled his skills together. A good part of the movie is set among Cecil’s family and friends, in Washington. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who is often home alone while he works long dinners at the White House, grows restive and resentful, drinks heavily, and dallies with a neighbor, played by Terrence Howard as a lazily insinuating porch lizard. Winfrey’s powerful common sense and humor dominate these moments, which are a welcome relief from the White House and the demonstrations; without the scenes at home—good times and bad—the movie could have been a barely sufferable nobility trip...“The Butler” is a lightweight, didactic movie, a kind of well-produced high-school entertainment. Cecil has to learn how the courage of the protesters who got their heads bashed brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. [His son] Louis, in his elegant Panther beret, has to learn that domestic service is nothing to be ashamed of. “The Butler” picks up where “The Help” left off. Respect your elders, the movie says; they put in a hard day’s work. Cecil is a modest and reticent hero, and Forest Whitaker, in his white gloves and formal tux, his shoulders pulled back, is like a sentinel keeping guard over the nation’s dignity. -–DAVID DENBY, The New Yorker

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" was inspired, a title card says, by a true story. That usually means the line between fact and fiction has been blurred, but this time there's no line to blur. The butler, Cecil Gaines, is a fictional creation, an African-American Forrest Gump who bears special witness to the civil-rights movement while serving on the White House staff under seven presidents. The contrivance is stretched to its breaking point over a running time of 132 minutes; some of the episodes cross a different line from almost plausible to downright silly. That's not the whole story, though. The movie borrows cumulative power from the era's tormented racial history through the use of news clips, as well as through dramatic re-creations. And Forest Whitaker brings a quiet grandeur to the title role of a white-gloved Uncle Tom who, ever so slowly radicalized by events, becomes the proud black man he was born to be..."The Butler" is weakened by heedless overreaching, and by spasms of ineptitude in Danny Strong's script. Cecil's middle-class home life seldom rises above cliché, even though Oprah Winfrey gives a fine, incisive performance as his troubled wife...of all the film's presidential impersonators, only John Cusack, fitted with a Cyrano nose, scores points for suggestive wit as an intriguingly devious Nixon. Jane Fonda has a brief but commanding turn as Nancy Reagan.” --JOE MORGENSTERN, The Wall Street Journal