Movie Review: LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER Is An Entertaining Miss

Not good, but not quite bad either.

If you were to mix an untalented John Waters with someone like Edward Zwick, I think you'd get a good match for Lee Daniels. Even at his most tamed and eager to grab awards, Daniels cannot help but be a weirdo. One need only witness John Cusack's Richard Nixon impression to know something's up with this guy. There's a bit in Lee Daniels' The Butler where Cuba Gooding Jr. tells a joke that ends with the punchline: "I told you my pussy was tight!" (or something very close). Lee Daniels wants the dirty joke, but he also wants a PG-13. So he masks the word "pussy" and "tight" by awkwardly dropping the dialog track and adding the sound of clanging dishes instead, as if we're watching and edited for television version of the film. Later Gooding calls Forest Whitaker a "motherfucker," and Daniels does it again. I couldn't believe it.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (I was specifically reminded to call it that) is a difficult film to review because it's kind of all over the place quality-wise. Its supposed important look at the Civil Rights Movement floats by on a sea of feel-good bullshit. But despite all its weird faults, it's still an entertaining entry into this weird socially important award-bait sub genre. The racially diverse audience I saw it with absolutely adored the film.

You know the plot. Forest Whitaker works as a butler through a number of presidential administrations, all of which played crucial roles in the Civil Rights Movement. I wouldn't say he influences the presidents decisions directly so much as he's simply there to witness many of their decisions, though the film's Martin Luther King Jr. does give a speech about how black butlers unwittingly play subversive roles in the fight for equality. So by being a hard worker and a beloved figure of the White House, I guess he does have a subtle impact. Still, the whole President angle feels a lot more like a story about how great white people are when given the chance. Except for Nixon, of course.

Whitaker's Cecil Gaines really is one hell of a butler, though. By the time we're done watching him learn the ropes with Clarence Williams III, Lee Daniels' The Butler makes serving seem almost like a superpower. Cecil loves working for Presidents so much that he almost loses his wife to alcoholism and Terrence Howard thanks to the long hours he puts into the job.

Lee Daniels' The Butler bears a very strange resemblance to one of those long form, cinematic Mr. Show sketches. As Cecil accepts and even thrives under his extremely low glass ceiling, his son decides to go change the world. And he does so by somehow being present for nearly every notable event in the movement's history, many of which are high profile enough that Cecil can basically track his son's activities simply by watching the news. Next thing we know, his son's casually hanging out in Martin Luther King Jr's hotel room. By the time he shows up in Black Panther gear, it's pretty laughable, and there's still a whole Nelson Mandela bit to go. Forrest Gump also had a character who was inexplicably involved in every major development of his era, but that was an integral part of its humor. Here it looks more like a guy going through (extremely broad) costume changes, kind of like each time Dewey Cox walks in on Tim Meadows doing drugs in Walk Hard.

Watching various actors play Presidents has this sketch comedy feel as well. The actor choices are inspired, but in a slightly abject way. Nixon's the obvious stand-out, but Alan Rickman's Ronald Reagan is a sight to behold as well. They are almost all fun, but it's never anything more than a novelty.

There are a lot of good performances, though. A lot of fun and charisma exists between Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lenny Kravitz's trio of White House butlers. Oprah Winfrey is absolutely outstanding. Her scenes are some of the most superfluous to the narrative, but also some of the best. In fact, if Lee Daniels' The Butler were just a series of aimless White House kitchen scenes, occasionally broken up by Oprah Winfrey scenes, I'd totally love this film.

And I do have to admit some fondness for Lee Daniels' The Butler. It's not something I recommend you go see, and it falls way short of the trashy insanity found in other Lee Daniels films. But it's more entertaining than I expected, despite its many narrative failures.