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Movie review: Acting makes 'The Butler' worth the price of admission

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(Rated 6 out of 10 stars.)

(132 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements, and smoking.)

Among the carnage of every summer's big-budget, wanna-be blockbusters, oftentimes a charming film emerges from the settling dust. This year, Hollywood has given us a winsome little picture, "Lee Daniel's The Butler," that in many ways is the best thing to which audiences have been treated this summer.

Daniels produced and directed the Oscar-nominated "Precious" in 2009, and this film is most certainly a commendable follow-up. What problems the film has (and there are a few) are completely in the writing because, without any doubt, all the technical elements are exceptionally good. Initially, I thought the choice of title was a bit egotistical, but I have since discovered that Daniels did just want "The Butler" but that title evidently had trademark and licensing issues.

"The Butler" is a biopic (very) loosely based upon the life of Eugene Allen who served, obviously, as a butler at the White House from the end of the Truman administration through the second term of the Reagan administration. The script was written by actor and up-and-coming writer Danny Strong (who incidentally is heavily involved in the screen adaptation of the third "Hunger Games" movie) and while it ultimately proves to be its downfall, the project itself is extraordinarily ambitious in its scope.

There is much to like about this movie, and I found myself mesmerized at times with the legions of exceptional actors this film paraded out. The Butler is played by Forest Whitacker, and lets start the Oscar buzz for him now--he was that good. Whitacker is one of the least known, yet most recognized and assuredly talented actors working today. He was most critically-acclaimed for a brilliant film, "The Last King of Scotland", for which he won Best Actor, and most would know his first big break in "Good Morning, Vietnam" where he played the driver for Robin Williams who kept turning the ignition on an already running jeep.

Oh, yeah! Him!

Well, go see him in this movie as Whitacker put on an acting clinic that ought to be studied in acting classes across the country. He played his character with exquisite charm, was fascinatingly understated, and Whitacker displayed reserved emotions that were held, mainly, at a gently rolling boil throughout the film. His work was captivating, and as you watched him, you understood every emotion and every thought whether he verbalized it or not.

His wife was played by none other than Oprah Winfrey, and for the most part she was as good as her reputation, although she did slip in and out of the 1950s black vernacular rather noticeably in the early parts of the movie. Moreover, for most of the first part of the film, it was hard to look at Oprah and suspend my disbelief and thus buy into her character. However, as the film moved toward its climax, the writing for her became a bit meatier and she was much more fluid. I must praise, she was rather good.

The cast of supporting actors in this film was achingly good, and one was better than the last as they took their turn on the screen. Highlighting a list that included Terrance Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave (who is still stunningly beautiful at her age), and David Oyelowo, was audience favorite Cuba Gooding, Jr. While the writing was clearly slanted for Gooding, this is one of the better acting jobs he has given of late. He also had one of the funniest lines in film in recent memory, delivered with an acerbic wit that caused me to laugh out loud for the next few minutes. Thankfully, there was only one other person in the theater.

Where the film failed grandly was with regard to the interaction Whitacker's character, Cecil Gaines, may have had with the presidents over the course of his career. Moreover, with so little screen time given to each president, the weird choices Daniels made of the actors who played the various presidents worked against him.

Robin Williams looked, acted, and sounded nothing at all like Eisenhower, and this was utterly distracting. While James Marsden did a serviceable job as Kennedy, the choice of the charismatic John Cusack as uncharismatic Richard Nixon was dumbfounding. Just when I did not think it could get worse, they let Alan Rickman play Ronald Reagan. While he rather looked like Reagan, he still sounded like and had the speech patterns of Professor Snape. I must admit, however, the scene with Liev Schreiber as LBJ was two minutes of classic material.

All of these very talented actors might have worked well in their respective parts had we been given two hours to adjust to their presence. In two minute scenes, it just seemed absurd.

This absurdity did nothing but shine the spotlight on the biggest issue I had with the film. The writer could never truly make what he wanted this movie to be. For the most part, the biopic on Whitacker's character spread well beyond his job and what little relationships he had with various presidents, and instead dealt with the much bigger issue of civil rights and how his family engaged this time in history. As the film moved onward, we saw how this family was directly attached to every civil rights landmark event in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was way too hokey how Whitacker was with each president at their time of greatest crisis.

I kept waiting for something more. The movie did not offer a statement of some societal ill as much as it gave us an orderly checklist of every horrid event from the beginning of the civil rights movement right through the election of President Obama.

I wanted to connect with the film, and was rooting for that precisely to happen. The writer and filmmaker, I think, wanted this movie to be the defining civil rights film of our time. That aspiration grossly failed.

What we got instead was a combination of "Forrest Gump", "Roots", and "Driving Miss Daisy."

And one of my pet peeves about Hollywood is that they have to expand characters, rewrite history, and alter personalities to fit the political slants of today. There was much in this film that was entirely untrue and completely fictionalized. Hunt down Michael Reagan's comments about the film if you want an interesting interview about that topic in general.

What should have happened was the film should have explored the relationship that Whitacker's character--the true butler, Eugene Allen--may have had with any president. But the good news is that we got to watch some of the most talented actors of our generation for two hours.

That alone is worth the price of admission.

I give it 6 of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!