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IN SHORT: A serious serious movie killed by its script. [Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. 130 minutes]
A whole messa stars came out of the woodwork to play various presidents and their first ladies which marks Lee Daniels' The Butler as a serious serious movie. While individual moments (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and Liev Schreiber as LBJ on a toilet) stand out, we still demand a believable story in our serious films. This one plays as if it was written from a template.
The job of a butler is to fetch things and/or announce the arrival of guests, amongst other things. Lee Daniels' The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) an African-American who manages to hold on to a single job for a remarkable thirty years, give or take. That the job is as butler to the president of the United States is, obviously, interesting . . . on the surface. That this film tries almost desperately to link the main character to the executive decisions that (finally) bend over and force civil rights legislation into federal law, is not. We don't fault Forest Whitaker's performance as Cecil Gaines. Or Oprah Winfrey as his wife, either. But ...
Sometimes a butler is just a butler. You can't make a story where there isn't one. That's all there is to it.
So screenwriter Danny Strong makes one up, beginning on a cotton farm somewhere in Georgia, where Massa rapes and murders and Massa's mama takes a young'un in to be a house nigga . . . setting said young'un on a course that will have him serving Whitey throughout the course of his life. That life will include marriage to the beautiful Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), the birth of twin boys and a job in the kitchen of the White House. As the story plays out, one son will be radicalized and join the Black Panthers. The other will join the Army and serve in Viet Nam.
We don't have the slightest idea if this is true . . . actually, we do. It is buried in the press notes. The real butler had but one son but this way, meaning the natural drama of having two sons to go separate ways, the story is more dramatic. In the language of my tribe, the proper adjective is the word "oy." (Pronounce it slowly as you exhale.) Frankly, we think the bigger story, at least the one we perceived is this: that Cecil is told to keep his mouth shut to keep his job. Except that answering the occasional question from a president is OK; and that those answers trigger policy changes, whoever the president may be, is reverse racist.
The problem with the fictional license taken is that we don't know if the best story point in this entire film -- the occasional request by Cecil to be paid at the same rate as the white staff -- is true, or not. If this is true, then any viewer should be outraged.that such a discrimatory practice should be carried out in the highest office in the land. If the story point is untrue, everything we mentioned about reverse racist stereotype applies.
August is that awkward month where lousy summer blockbuster wannabees compete with the first batch of Oscar wannabees -- the ones that try to build momentum with a whole mess of critical raves. Lee Daniels' The Butler is sure packed with A-list actors who all try to deliver a film which hits one out of the park. But, oy, the script . . .
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Lee Daniels 'The Butler, he would have paid . . .
We'll wait quietly while you spend up to fifteen dollars for your ticket, and then email us to say "Cranky you were right." Been there done that. [Unless your reaction is the opposite one, in which case the email will be packed with four letter expletives. Been there done that, too.]
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