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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Butler

Just a few words about a movie that isn't afraid to flaunt its ambition.

The Butler uses the well-worn and normally pretty effective trope of examining large swaths of history through the life of a single character. In movie terms, the most famous and best example of this is Forrest Gump (I don't care what its detractors say, Forrest Gump is a modern masterpiece) but, though The Butler is clearly going for a similar, if decidedly less irreverent, effect, it's nowhere near as good.

The history being examined this time centres around the lead up to and the fallout from the American Civil Rights movement that reached its apex in the 1960s, with the character through whose eyes we view these tumultuous times is Cecil Gaines, the eponymous butler who, while working in the White House since the 1950s, saw presidents come and go and major changes sweep the country.

It's a smart premise, but the film fails to entirely deliver on its premise. The history it deals with is fascinating - especially if, like me, you're interested in the great social changes that swept across the US and the rest of the developed Western World during the 1960s - and it has, as its focal point, yet another blisteringly good performance from Forest Whitaker, but as a piece of dramatic storytelling, it's somewhat underwhelming.

The script, for a start, has little of the scathing humour and sharpness of Danny Strong's previous politically-charged TV-movie work and the film's utter lack of sense of humour makes it a rather trying two-some hours. While Forrest Gump used its episodic nature to brilliant effect with a freewheeling, satirical and often frankly demented tone, the self-conscious severity of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's work makes the film fairly plodding and is often rescued from boring tedium only by the compelling power of its historical basis.

It also suffers badly from the presence of Oprah Winfrey in the role of Gaines' wife, who is ostensibly the film's female lead. It's not that she's a terrible actress, but her "real-life" persona is so grandiose, so heavily imprinted into everyone's consciousness, that there is simply no way in hell that she can ever properly disappear into a role. She is also, in this case at least, not the most compelling screen presence either, I have to say. The rest of the supporting cast acquit themselves fine in roles that are often little more than extended cameos - only Cecil himself is even remotely well developed as a character - but The Butler never manages to overcome its Winfrey-shaped problem.

I can't help but give The Butler a very mild recommendation as it does have such a great lead performance and its subject matter is interesting even when its drama is not, but this clear Oscar-bait is far from a great movie and is especially disappointing considering how good Strong's scripts have been in the past.

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