Monday, August 19, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler Successfully Pulls at the Heart Strings, but also Hits some Bumps in trying to be too Ambitious

Lee Daniels' The Butler (3 1/2 out of 5)
Directed by: Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy)
Written by: Danny Strong (Game Change, Recount)
Starring: Forrest Whitaker, and Oprah Winfrey

About 18 years ago Robert Zemeckis directed the film Forrest Gump, the film had an impact on grand storytelling, and one man's place in connection with history.  How do you tie one person to 50 or more years of history, and not clutter the film with happenstance.  Gump used things as obvious as Vietnam, and the not so obvious, with ping pong.  Lee Daniels' The Butler (yes this is the official title) uses a similar method of storytelling, in describing events, based on a true story, in the life of Cecil Gaines.

Gaine's (Whitaker) life starts out as young boy in North Carolina, growing up on a cotton farm.  As a young boy he loses his father, and his mother does not recover from the loss so he leaves the plantation after years of serving in the house.  Cecil's experience as a house service provides him the experience to work his way through employment at various hotels.  While working at Washington's Excelsior Hotel he meets his wife Gloria (Winfrey), has two children with her but also eventually becomes so well liked that he lands himself a gig as a butler at the White House.

The meat of the film's script is connecting history to the person, showing Cecil working in every administration from Eisenhower to Reagan, and how race played out in dialogue and debate within each administration.  Cecil's oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) see history from a different lens finding himself in every Civil Rights movement from the Freedom Writers, the Black Panthers, and fighting for Madela's freedom in the late eighties. 

Danny Strong who wrote the scripts for HBO's Game Change, and Recount has knack for writing about historical situations; he makes real life events within both of those stories concise to the point analysis of the one or central event within each film.  Strong's script is ambitious, and he is taking the next best steps within his career, but the script and long reaching historical connections is where this film often flounders.  The dichotomy between history and personal is often contrived, you can also see this with the portrayal in each and every one of the Presidents, who distract from the films message. 

The most genuine moments within the script come while Cecil is with his friends and family at their homes.  There is more emotional weight watching them as they work through their various experiences, rather than watching Liev Schirber (who plays LBJ) on the toilet, or Robin Williams (Eisenhower) painting.  Watching Cecil and Gloria work through the pain and anguish of the years they have spent trying to do right by each other, their family, and friends, and as they age through the years is the more interesting part of the story.

The reason this film succeeds is because of four people, Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' and producer Laura Ziskin. Whitaker is simply fantastic as Cecil; he operates as this calming force in the lives of his co-workers, and Presidents while trying to navigate the struggles within the era, and his own family turmoil.  Whitaker is one of the best actors because we he takes on roles you find this distinct character/person with whom you feel connected because of the way in which he transforms. 

 Whitaker has dynamite chemistry with Oprah, as a husband and wife team there love, and anguish ring true.  Gloria battles booze, and infidelity as she navigates her husbands commitment to his job, and she must be the glue and bond which keeps their family together.  Oprah is simply electric within this role, stealing many scenes, but also playing the emotional heft masterfully; she is a talented actress, her other work in The Color Purple has proved she has the chops.

Laura Ziskin will be given a lot of credit when (if) this this film is also a financial success.  Ziskin who passed away recently pushed hard when she read the story “A Butler Well Served by This Election” in the Washington Post, which was about a man named Eugene Allen, who this film is based.  Ziskin is one of the forty producers listed on this film, but she was the brainchild who pushed hard for this film to be made.

With Ziskin's hard work to get this made, this film does have an incredible emotional impact, and while the script is lacking the tightness,  Lee Daniels' direction helps create an aura which helps make this film successful.  Daniels last film The Paperboy, while bad still showed potential, and his first big feature Precious has a style, clear to this man. Daniels took on an ambitious project, worked hard, and pushed to help make this an emotional story, which make you think about the evolution of our nation through the eyes of one man, and the forward movement making that still must be carried forward.

As with films which tackle this "Forrest Gump" like analysis of a man's journey through history, there are always bound to be some problems, even with Forrest Gump.  Gump has several contrived scenes, the Watergate one is one of the worst.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a similar style, and tried to navigate this man's journey through time, although never trying too hard to connect him with history.  At the end each of the films, including The Butler has something, which makes each of them a solid movie experience, and that's heart.

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