Although it’s been out for several weeks, Lee Daniels’s “The Butler” (PG-13) continues to perform at the box-office. In the film, Forest Whitaker stars as a plantation orphan who works his way up to being a butler at the White House. Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo and Lenny Kravitz costar in the film. Lee Daines directs.
Andy: “The Butler” is a very ambitious piece of historical fiction that, unfortunately, falls well short of its ambition. First of all, it begins with the obligatory, “Inspired by a true story,” which means it’s fiction that happens to be based on a real guy. This becomes clear almost immediately in how the historical events play out in neat little segments that the main characters always happen to be present for, as well as the superficial way the film handles many of the historical (and personal) events the film depicts.
Ryan: There’s no question that “The Butler” has that Forest Gump vibe where seemingly ordinary people fall upon historical moments around extraordinary people. The film’s narrative follows that same template. But as Andy alludes too, “The Butler” falls short in being the great film it aspires to be. It’s seemingly entertaining on a superficial level and that’s the best compliment I can give it.
Andy: The biggest shortcoming of “The Butler” is that it presents so much of the action in a way that seems like it was made for a movie. When a film chooses to delve into a complex and violent event such as the civil rights movement, there is a responsibility to create that reality in a way that takes the viewer to that time and place. “The Butler” tries to make it personal by placing one of the characters at many of the most relevant events of the civil rights movement. The device backfires, as it ends up feeling contrived, which serves to minimize these important historical developments.
Ryan: I will also say that “The Butler” is an earnest film. It has its heart in the right place and it tries to be a relevant and important film. Tackling almost a hundred years of civil rights and the subsequent movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s is a grand ambition — almost too grand — as it becomes impossible to fully process all the events the film touches on. As a dramatic endeavor the movie does have its moments, but the sum of the parts do not make a great film.
Andy: “The Butler” seems like the type of movie that would boast several high-caliber performances. Forrest Whitaker is one of Hollywood’s best, and Oprah is a former Oscar nominee. Both are good in this film, but neither gives the type of transcendent performance needed to compensate for some of the other shortcomings. There are moments that are truly inspiring, but the movie ends up being too heavy handed to take as seriously as it should be taken.
Ryan: Part of that heavy-handedness comes from the fact that the characters simply exist as symbols and not real characters. There’s some character development but most of that falls flat or feels contrived. Again, there’s no question the “true story” that propels the film is fascinating, but I don’t think it’s best served by embellishing the narrative to a point where something this remarkable could only happen in a movie.
“The Butler” arrived with good intentions but ultimately falls short. Final grade: C.