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Aug 19 2013

Review: White House.Golden Oprah.Lee Daniels' The Butler

This review was originally published inmy column at Towleroad

Somewhere in the vast middle ofLEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER,a movie about a White House butler who served US Presidents from the Eisenhowers through the Reagans,there's a terrific agitated scene in which we leave the butler behind to check in on his wife Gloria.Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and Howard (Terrence Howard),the neighbor she's turned to from loneliness,argue on a couch.Howard is trying to sweet-talk his way back into her bed.Gloria,guilt-ridden,distracts herself with chain smoking,occasionally side-eyeing him as if he were a buzzing nuisance and,damn,where is her fly swatter?Slick Howard begins spinning two of her clothes hangers in the air to visualize their parallel worlds.Gloria reacts with extreme annoyance to the comic pleasure of the audience -- Oprah gets one laugh after another,all of them blessedly intentional,in her rousing return to the big screen.

It's a weird but lively domestic hothouse scene that feels,at first,largely divorced from the movie containing it,a somewhat duller "greatest hits"tour of America's civil rights journey.But in its own peculiar way it's also the movie's key scene.[more...]

We're all of us living in parallel worlds that never quite synch up.That's definitely the case with Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker),the title man servant and his own family.His wife Gloria loves him but resents that he's so married to his career.His ambitious son,Louis (rising star David Oyelowo),is ashamed of his father's domesticity and apolitical conduct.

What's more,Cecil is living and profiting from the White Man's world but he's never truly a part of it,valued most for his invisibility in a room.It's an interesting predicament and one that rings true and resonant even in the midst of the movie's often awkward and inauthentic recreations of past administrations.The parade of Presidents and their First Ladies sometimes feels like a series of SNL sketches with famous actors guest starring as American royalty. Nevertheless this 'outside looking in' quality resonates and hurts.

Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo as father & son

Shortly before its releaseThe Movie Formerly Known as "The Butler"was under legal attack for its title and was eventually forced to change its name so that audiences wouldn't confuse it with the 1916 Warner Bros silent short namedThe Butler.You know,how people are always mixing up those old one reelers with big messy talkies starring Oprah Winfrey!!! But the strangest thing about the new title is that the new movie might be the least personal of any of Lee Daniels' pictures.

Lee Daniels' first three films (Shadowboxer,PreciousandThe Paperboy) were all recognizably the work of the same man.ThoughPreciouswas a major breakthrough and Oscar success he's also been the target of consistent scorn for the hot mess qualities of his filmmaking.The knives really came out forThe Paperboy(reviewed),his slutty gothic follow up.Film critics tend to object to his movies for their crude organization,broad thematic content,near-constant prurience,and oddball casting.Though all of these complaints are accurate assessments,they miss the point in trying to make one.Without the odd,crude,horny,insanity a Lee Daniels movie wouldn't feel like a Lee Daniels movie and it wouldn't be so damn vivid.In daring to be unwatchable they're sometimes supremely watchable!

Lee Daniels' Gives Amazing Actress

We have more than enough movies that are pleasant and "well made"which evaporate a week after you see them.Whatever the director's drawbacks (I personally wish his movies were a lot more disciplined and beautifulvisually) he inarguably has a unique way with actors,loosening up their own gifts and allowing for a generous amount of surprise.The performances in his movies have an unusual level of candor,idiosyncracy,humor,and sideways genius.Whatever one thinks ofPreciousandThe Paperboy,for example,there's just no point in denying the jaw-dropping fearlessness of Mo'nique and Nicole Kidman in them.Here inThe Butlerthis gift serves Daniels especially well with Oprah who commands every scene with the skill of a professional actorandthe abandon of an untrained novice.Watching Oprah boogie in a crocheted disco suit is worth the ticket purchase alone.Though Forest Whitaker's character is too staid to be very interesting and saddled with ghastly 'let me state the obvious...and repeatedly' narration,the picture is filled with personalities that add welcome flavor.(Yaya Dacosta is terrifically self-satisfied as a bitchy Black Panther,Isaac White is endearingly playful as the youngest son,and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz counterbalance Whitaker's stillness well in the White House.)

But despite the lively performance bits,Lee Daniels' The Butlerplays it quite safe and thus quite unlike a Lee Daniels' picture.The result is two movies,spinning in opposite directions side by side.The one with horny bored mama Oprah and her squabbling family is a real good time.The other one has its heart in the right place (People get fussy about the repetition but it bears repeating: America seriously has ISSUES with racism) but is often not much more than an African-American Oscar-baiting cousin toCavalcade(1933) andForrest Gump(1994),two wildly overrated "Best Pictures"for White People in which the cypher protagonists drift through Important Historical Signposts for your edification.

Grade:A,B,C,D ...depending on the scene.

: Oprah by a thousand percent...it's not on the Kidman/Mo'Nique level but damn she's entertaining in it

Oscar Chances
: Yes,it's a crudely managed self-important history lesson but Oscar loves self-important history lessons however they're managed!.It's a done deal for at least one Oscar nod (Oprah Winfrey asBest Supporting Actress) thoughScreenplayandPicture,the next most likely nods,might be harder to harvest.Longshot possibilites exist in Actor (Forest Whitaker) and Supporting Actor (David Oyelowo) if AMPAS falls for it in a big way.As for craft categories,it isn't really showy in that way despite the historical trappings (beyond costumes) or even "beautiful"so they're unlikely...though AMPAS does occassionally like long ungraceful "greatest hits"history lessons in the Editing category for reasons we cannot begin to fathom.

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Reader Comments (22)

would love to see the big O win an Oscar.

You know half of the Academy would vote for her on name alone!Haven't all the big stars done her show at one point?

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I admit I wasn't sold on The-Film-Formerly-Known-As-The-Butler,but that screenshot of Oprah and this review have convinced me to go see it.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Without seeing the movie yet,Oprah is the awards magnet.However which actor/actress impersonating a president/first lady will the starf***ing HFPA nominate.You know there is going to be atleast one?

August 19,2013 | Unregistered Commenterkbrad

good to hear about oprah (and yaya 'respeito' dacosta)!idk exactly why - I haven't seen the movie -,but I'm rooting for her!

August 19,2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

However which actor/actress impersonating a president/first lady will the starf***ing HFPA nominate.You know there is going to be atleast one?

Honestly,not one of them were that good.Closest was probably Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan,but maybe it was the brevity of the role that helped.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

"(People get fussy about the repetition but it bears repeating: America seriously has ISSUES with racism)"

yes!I'm already tired of reading comments in film sites of people being tired of oprah talking about racism...(and this denial of the problem is sadly not only an american problem)

August 19,2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

Nathaniel,dearest,could you put a gold star next to The Film Bitch winner for best supporting actress from last year?The suspense is driving me mad!I think it may be Kidman,as you speak often and fondly of the performance,but you loved that first half ofLes Mis.Or were you more taken by one of the other mothers in?Oh the mysteries...

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterVal

I still kinda liked it a lot,but i feel like the paperboy is so underrated.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Josh.you would be correct sir :)

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Maybe the pattern of excellence with Lee Daniels filmography is awkward titles.I've seen all 4 of his movies now and the ones I found most watchable were the ones with title issues stemming from a legal requirement.I'm hoping for an awkward title for his next movie then.Lee Daniels Presents Fences: Based on the Play Fences by August Wilson maybe?

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterFlickah

Oprah already has an (honorary) Oscar,which is plenty for her.No más.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Thanks for the Oprah love,Nathaniel!I thought this would be ripe for you to tear her apart,but I'm glad that wasn't the case,even if you had your issues with the film surrounding her.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterWes

I agree,Oprah was a f*cking trip.She was really good.I was shocked and she totally deserves the praise.Man,this might be a funnnn Oscar season with the Mighty Opes on board.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Oprah's Honorary Oscar was controversial at best.I don't think they will reward her with a win so soon.A nomination probably.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I have not seen The Butler yet ...so I am keeping an open mind about Op;rah ..I loved her in The Color Purple...so?

I am not an Oprah fan as such...I think her humanitarianism is great BUT...she has to do a special show to let people know how great she is BUZZZZZZZ ..so many big stars do a lot to serve the world but really keep it under the radar.

August 19,2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

I like the point of the wild casting and visual tendencies make it his film,they are the best,who wants workman like from auteurs which i feel is what he has become,when he casts you are intrigued by his choices,who would've thought that Kidman would still be topping herself 10 years after the oscar win,shame about an awol mo'nique..

August 20,2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

How was Jane Fonda.

August 20,2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

I haven't seen The Butler,so I can't comment on Oprah's work.However,I just can't help but wonder if some of the amazing reviews she's getting (Nathan,you excluded,because I trust your opinion) are buoyed by pleasant surprise at how well she performs in this despite her infrequent film work.I'm sure there are many out there,me included,who are wondering if she can still even act.In this context,even an above average job might be rewarded with quite effusive praise.

August 20,2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Lee Daniels enlisted Nicole Kidman's acting coach for Oprah.Which explains why this performance isn't the raw instinctual exercises of everything else she's done prior.

August 20,2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Flickah - thanks for the laugh :p

I'm not surprised Oprah is great.She was great in The Color Purple too.I just hope this means more roles from her!She'll definitely be nominated,and I could see her winning since it's her "return"and would've made a deserving winner in '85 too,and then went into the talk show stuff and became the world's richest black woman.But we'll see how the season plays out!

I'm also happy Yaya is great.She showed great potential in The Kids Are All Right and I'm still sad about that SAG ensemble snub.:/

August 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Minor flaws aside,this movie hit me like a Mack truck.I think it is Daniels' most accomplished film visually (just the contrast between the state dinners and dining rooms at the White House vs.the lunch counter sit-in assaults is mesmerizing,not to mention Minka Kelly in Jackie's pink suit with the bloodstains,Whittaker polishing hundreds of shoes,etc.).I frankly thought Oprah was borderline astonishing (her scene at the dinner table where she tells off her son and his girlfriend sparked tears in my eyes),especially because of the baggage she brings;however,I don't know if she surpassed Octavia Spencer in "Fruitvale Station,"which right now is for my money the Supporting Actress performance of the year (just edging Alison Janney in "The Way Way Back"--then again,Spencer has meatier material).

I don't think many of the white actors disgraced themselves,but they really didn't make a big impression,aside from Liev Schriber's hysterical turn as Johnson.Cusack has been getting tarred and feathered for his portrayal of Nixon,but I actually really liked his scenes;I also wish Fonda had had more than basically one scene.But the one that intrigued me the most is Vanessa Redgrave;she can do more with the lifting of a finger than some actors can do with a page of dialogue,and I wish her scenes with the younger version Whittaker's character had gone on longer.

This is the right movie at the right time;don't be surprised if it wins Best Picture,despite worthier potential competition.It's emotional impact cannot be denied or overstated,even if it does skim over history a little too rapidly and superficially at points.The cumulative power is still a knockout.

August 26,2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

This movie was remarkably good.A friend of mine recommenced it for me and I did not think I would like it but I love it.Its the best movie I saw all year.

June 2,2014 | Unregistered CommenterErin

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