Oscar season is finally upon us, and it looks like it’s starting off with a lethargic, missionary-style bang. Lee Daniels’ The Butler follows the kind of true story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), based on the real life Eugene Allen, a former cotton plantation worker who gradually moves his way up in the world, eventually reaching the White House. Throughout his life, his family comes face to face with the American Civil rights movement, all while serving the Presidents responsible for the government involvement in it.
While I didn’t hate the film, I didn’t love it either. It was like getting a handjob. It’s alright I guess, but I can do it myself. Been there done that. Comme ci comme ca. Way to shoot for mediocre, sweetheart. Of course there were the generic civil rights scenes—stock footage of riots and Walter Cronkite announcing the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. One character goes to Vietnam, another joins the black panthers and all the southern white people are ghosts for Halloween for some reason. Pretty much just the standard '50s/'60s changing America joint.
The film has its fair share of choppy editing, where the short scenes hastily fade into one another, but this is an acting movie. Whitaker is all right as the lead, but his lazy eye wandering all over the place whenever it feels like kind of makes his character hard to read. One eye says, “I’m looking at you, bro. I mean business," while the other suggests, “I’m gazing off into the distance and being contemplative." Things are tough to gauge when I’m confused as to which character he’s talking to. He wasn’t bad, but he was no Last King of Scotland.
Oprah was also in the film for some reason, while Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey returned from the director’s previous effot, Precious. As always, Lenny is cooler than the other side of the pillow and plays his small part well. Mariah Carey, on the other hand, doesn’t have a single line in the entire film and is somehow still offensive. I could go on and on about the different central actors, but, honestly, nobody cares. The real buzz is around the ridiculous, crazy person, ensemble cast playing the various U.S. presidents.
It seems pretty clear that both Whitaker and Lee Daniels were trying to produce an Oscar-winning movie and that’s exactly how this felt. To be clear, I mean that in a negative way.
Leiv Schreiber’s LBJ has basically one scene in the entire film. It goes something like this: he’s got his pants around his ankles, pinching off a loaf based on the novel Push by Sapphire, all while shooting off the N-word like an NFL player at a Kenny Chesney concert. Nailed it.
Poor James Marsden. This guy can’t catch a break. His characters seem to get fucked over in every film he’s in. In Superman Returns, his wife, Lois Lane, is boinking the Man of Steel. She even has an illegitimate child with him. He gets cuckolded in pretty much every movie he’s in, like The Notebook, Strawdogs, Enchanted and getting vaporized into dog shit in X-Men: The Last Stand. Maybe that’s why he’s a brilliant fit for John F. Kennedy. SPOILER ALERT: Things don’t pan out so great for this POTUS.
The best performance is, somewhat surprisingly, John Cusack as the anthropomorphic nose and jowls that are Richard Nixon. Although, I’m going to have to subtract ten points from Gryffindor on his performance because, while very sweaty, he is not nearly sweaty enough to be ol’ Tricky Dick. There is one great scene where, while still Vice President, he walks into the White House kitchen to remind the black staff to vote for him, instead of his civil rights activist opponent, JFK. Can I count on your vote? Blub blub blub. I am not a crook.
As far as the remaining presidents go, Robin Williams looks just like Eisenhower, but still sounds like Robin Williams. Alan Rickman will forever be German terrorist Hans Gruber in my mind and Tim Meadows actually did a pretty solid job as Barack Obama.
What? That was just stock footage of Obama? Oh, my bad you guys.
It seems pretty clear that both Whitaker and Lee Daniels were trying to produce an Oscar winning movie and that’s exactly how this felt. To be clear, I mean that in a negative way. Instead of making a great movie that happens to win an Oscar, they made a movie with all of the predictable, dramatic Oscar cliches, while disregarding the quality of the content. If JFK, Mississippi Burning and Forest Whitaker all produced Academy Awards, then why not cram them all together to make one huge, award-winning gangbang?
Four Pins Rating: 5.5/10 Gabourey Sidibe chins
Matt Rimer is a writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter here.