Is it possible to determine a person's success based on his career or the relationships he creates along the way? That's part of the premise behind the newly released "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which followed one man's journey of self discovery and survival. The movie's overall story was entertaining, but the fictionalizing of certain actual events threatened to nearly ruin everything.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" followed how Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) started as a young slave living in terror of a cruel white master who destroy his parents. He escaped that life and found his calling as a butler. He learned how to help people without making any waves with any of his white employers. Cecil's professional success gained him the opportunity to work as a butler inside the White House where he was privy to inside information that he never shared with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). With his long hours, he developed strong friendships with fellow staffers (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) as they bonded while trying to keep their heads down. Cecil managed to connect with Presidents, such as John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and Richard Nixon (John Cusack) at the highs and lows of their terms. As Cecil served each President, his family managed to struggle to keep his family together. Gloria turned to drinking and a failed affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard). Cecil's oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) turned to social activism to air out his feelings about the world, which often landed him in jail on more than one occasion. His younger son became a casualty of the Vietnam War, which Cecil never fully got over. There were a few times where Cecil could no longer put his head down and ignore what was going on around him. He fought for equal rights for his fellow staffers, but he simply grew tired of living behind the scenes. What will Cecil do now that he was fully aware of the world around him? Will he embrace it or fight for change?
In terms of questions, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" posed some moral dilemmas of how various characters were tested by society's rules and traditions. Cecil's dilemmas were big ones as he was forced to not fight back until the last possible moment. The overall story was a fascinating one of how a man was able to be around when some of the most political events happened, even though he was behind the scenes for the most part. It's just a shame that Hollywood felt they needed to fudge some the details to tell a better story when the real one was just as riveting. Another aspect of the movie that worked for the most part was the casting of various real life political figures who came in and out of the White House over the course of Cecil's career. Marsden's Kennedy seemed to touch upon the late President's charm and relatability, even though he didn't necessarily look the part. Cusack, on the other hand, wasn't the right choice to play Nixon. He made his version of the Former President too nice and didn't fully capture the end of his presidency when it all came crashing down. The movie also ideally cast Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan who captured the Former First Lady's ability to read people and get right to the heart of a situation without letting people know it. Of course, Fonda's presence helped to drive the story in such an unexpected way that viewers didn't necessarily see it coming. Sure, the movie's tone was somewhat preachy and had a few plot cliches, but the movie also brought about a tale of hope that people can overcome an obstacle thrown their way if they set their minds to it.
As for breakout performances, Whitaker and Winfrey led the pack as they portrayed the complex relationship of a husband and wife who sometimes found it challenging to be happy. Both of them managed to capture the emotional and the comedic aspects of the Gaines' complicated marriage. Whitaker delivered a quietly passionate performance of Cecil as he kept his emotions in check, even when he wanted to scream at the top of his lungs. His most memorable scene came towards the end of the movie when Cecil was forced to listen to President Reagan (Alan Rickman) talk about his views of Apartheid. Whitaker indicated his frustration all over his face without having to say a word. He also had a decent rapport with Winfrey that showcased Cecil's comedic and romantic sides as he tried to romance his character's wife. Winfrey, on the other hand, had the challenging task of playing the typical long suffering wife, but she made Gloria more than that from start to finish. She had a few standout scenes on her own as she struggled to claw her way back to her husband. Her most memorable scene came as she fought to break off her alcohol infused affair because she knew it was wrong. It's a shame that Winfrey and Whitaker don't act in as many high caliber films as they did in the past. Hopefully, Hollywood will remedy that sooner rather than later.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is currently in theaters everywhere. Check your local listings.
Verdict: Whitaker and Winfrey gave top notch performances, but the muddled details and slightly miscast cameos almost derailed it all.
Movie Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Movie Rating: PG-13
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)