“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is nothing if not full of sincerity and effort. Which is why it’s so entirely confusing why they cast former teen heartthrob John Cusack as hangdog Richard Nixon. He’s fallen from his “Say Anything” days (and even the highs of “High Fidelity”), but this is maybe the worst casting we’ve seen in a major Hollywood film since Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. Having Robin Williams play Dwight Eisenhower comes a close second, and Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson isn’t much better. The decades-spanning drama tries so hard to create a moving, seemingly accurate look at the titular character’s time spent on the staff at the White House during turbulent times that these missteps stand out particularly strongly, especially when compared to lookalike contest winners James Marsden’s JFK and Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan. Casting moderately big names in these roles serves more as a distraction than anything since it’s not always a good fit of actor and historical figure. Johnson holding meetings while on the toilet may be funny, but not nearly as funny as the idea of the ancient looking president being played by the relatively youthful Schreiber. You can call us unimaginative, but we expect a little bit of realism and consistency from our overlong historical dramas, thank you very much.
With a script from “Recount” and “Game Change” writer Danny Strong, the film is based on the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen, here called Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). As a black child on a Georgia plantation in 1926, Cecil witnesses his mother (Mariah Carey) being taken away to be raped, and then sees his father (David Banner) shot and killed a few feet away from him. Violence permeates “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” from its opening moments in Macon, and even though Cecil is given a more comfortable job in the plantation owner’s home, he is not beyond hardship. When he leaves the plantation, he earns a spot working in a hotel and eventually works his way to a fancy Washington, DC hotel and then the White House.
The film walks through Cecil’s time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, beginning with Eisenhower’s term in 1957, moving through JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan’s reigns. We’re only shown historical footage of Presidents Ford and Carter, which is probably for the best because Daniels would have likely cast Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey as the 38th and 39th presidents, respectively. Though Cecil remains staunchly apolitical, his son Louis (David Oyewelo) first joins the civil rights movement as a Freedom Rider, then the Black Panthers. He and Louis clash throughout their relationship, much to the sadness of his alcoholic wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). Meanwhile, there’s consistency in Cecil’s duties as a butler, with the changing man at the top doing little to affect what he actually does on a day-to-day basis.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is the type of film that will likely please viewers who feel that they’re doing their civic duty by learning about history and experiencing the trauma of the civil rights movement. The drama does focus on several key touchstones that should never be forgotten, including the aftermath of Emmett Till’s murder, the Freedom Riders, and the Woolworth’s sit-in. But there are issues of tone, vaulting the audience between laughter and tears in a way that feels manipulative and not particularly skilled. There's no real directorial stamp here; it could have been made by anyone with moviegoers none the wiser, which is why the legally required name change from "The Butler" to "Lee Daniels' The Butler" seems particularly unsuitable. Daniels’ “Precious” was a far more effective look at how an individual was affected by her environment, depending more on strong performances than less-than-subtle nudges toward feeling.
That’s not to say that there aren’t solid performances here. As Cecil, Whitaker portrays the butler as a human being, a testament to both the actor and screenwriter Strong. Cecil is impressive in his work, but his relationship with his son is tough to watch at times. It would’ve been easy to cast him as a saint, but the familial conflict adds an interesting depth to the character and the story. Whitaker ages well with the character, allowing Cecil to feel the weight of gravity and the passing years. Winfrey gets to show consistent range, between her frustration at her husband’s dedication to his job, her struggles with the bottle and her varying relationships with family and friends. She’s the rare actress that we’d like to see more of.
As Cecil’s fellow butlers, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are good additions, with Gooding Jr. getting to be enjoyable raunchy (or at least as enjoyably raunchy as he can be in a PG-13 movie with some odd, off-putting sounds to cover his least appropriate dialogue). Terrence Howard is reliably slimy as the Gaines’ family friend. The rest of the enormous cast shows up for only a few minutes, with appearances from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, as well as Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Redgrave.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” could be an important film that comes at a time where race is still a challenging topic for America, but it succeeds less as a film than as a history lesson. It’s a movie that so clearly wants to be something important and Oscar-worthy, but it’s August release points to evidence that it doesn’t quite achieve its dreams. [C+]