Good intentions aren’t enough to save The Butler from contrivance

by Mark Burger

Forest Whitaker’s dignified and touching performance is the cornerstone of Lee Daniels’ The Butler (**), a historical drama inspired by Wil Haygood’s acclaimed Washington Post article. That the film’s official title specifies its director’s name is a good indication of the considerable license taken with the original article in bringing this story to the screen.

The Butler, with an overambitious and overzealous screenplay by Danny Strong, is another of those well-meaning films that “adjusts” history to suit its narrative trajectory, and tends to regard historical events from a contemporary perspective that borders on condescension. The film uses history as a dramatic device — often to its convenience — when the reverse approach would have been more authentic, and possibly more effective. Good intentions only go so far, and in The Butler they don’t go far enough.

The story follows Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who grew up poor in Georgia and worked his way up through the ranks of servitude in restaurants and hotels, until one day he reaches what could be construed the top of his profession as an official White House butler. From the 1950s until the ’80s, history takes place before Cecil’s eyes, in his very presence — with particular emphasis on the Civil Rights movement.

In an effort to add star power to its presidential proceedings, The Butler features some of the most egregious miscasting of any major film this year, including Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. The makeup employed to make each actor resemble their real-life counterparts serves only to make some of these actors appear embalmed. At least James Marsden bears some physical likeness to John Kennedy, as do Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.

The film spends as much, if not too much, time detailing Cecil’s life at home. Oprah Winfrey acts up a storm as his blowsy and reckless wife Gloria, usually providing excessive counterpoint to Cecil’s mostly self-effacing manner. One can’t help but think that Winfrey’s gunning for Oscar gold here, and it’s also strange to observe that her character doesn’t appear to age much until very late in the film.

The film is also heavy-handed in depicting the political awakening of their oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo). No sooner has he gone away to college than he’s arrested for a lunch-counter sit-in. Then he’s rubbing shoulders with Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) and shortly thereafter a founding member of the Black Panthers. Yet it has no impact on Cecil’s employment at the White House. This stretches credibility too much, although it’s no reflection on the gifted Oyelowo’s performance. Elijah Kelley has some nice moments as younger son Charlie, who ships off to Vietnam and, predictably enough, doesn’t come home (Vietnam had to be worked in here somewhere).

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are very appealing as two of Cecil’s co-workers, although they eventually depart the film with no explanation. Vanessa Redgrave and especially Clarence Williams III make the most of their small roles, while Mariah Carey (as Cecil’s mother) and Alex Pettyfer hardly make an impression in theirs. Terrence Howard is in full cad mode as Cecil and Gloria’s next-door neighbor.