“A sleazy, overstuffed and terribly directed mess.”
“I’m not entirely sure what it was that I just saw, but I’m sure it was awful.”
“He’s as unhinged and florid a director as issues of hunger, hate and desire demand.”
-Criticwire Member reviews of 2012’s “The Paperboy“
Those were just a sampling of the predecessors, opinions on the curious case of “The Paperboy.” A polarizing movie either eviscerated or applauded for its unabashed sleaze, much of the discussion centered around the merits of its helmer, Lee Daniels.
Fast forward a calendar year and Daniels is now at the center of another film clouded in a different kind of controversy, one that has pushed the director’s name into the very title of the film itself. But rather than dealing in pulpy craziness, it appears that “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has turned to a different emotion: sincerity.
Here, the murky waters of Southern Florida have been replaced by the tidiness and insta-prestige of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Forest Whitaker stars as the central butler, who experiences life at the White House through half a century of presidential administrations and the world outside Washington D.C.
The first wave of “Butler” reviews broke late last night and by early returns, it appears that Daniels’ latest effort won’t be plagued by nearly as many “D+”s as his last time in theaters.
Kimber Myers’ review at The Playlist argues that the title change may be a tad misleading, as there’s little filmmaking flair to connect “The Butler” to Daniels’ previous work:
“‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ is the type of film that will likely please viewers who feel that they’re doing their civic duty by learning about history and experiencing the trauma of the civil rights movement…But there are issues of tone, vaulting the audience between laughter and tears in a way that feels manipulative and not particularly skilled. There’s no real directorial stamp here; it could have been made by anyone with moviegoers none the wiser.”
Drawing the apparent “decades of history through one man’s eyes” comparisons to “Forrest Gump,” Variety’s Scott Foundas also highlights the unabashed emotional manipulation on display:
“There’s no denying, though, that Daniels knows how to push an audience’s buttons, and as crudely obvious as ‘The Butler’ can be…it’s also genuinely rousing. By the end, it’s hard not to feel moved, if also more than a bit manhandled.”
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a cast list longer than its titular character’s career at the White House, but Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter argues that the ensemble never feels disjointed:
“Each scene has its purpose and complimentary energy, the actors all seem unified in a joint cause and the angle from which the historical panorama is presented remains sufficiently unusual to sustain rapt attention. This is not an artful, tidy or sophisticated film, but its subject and his stationary odyssey are of such a singular nature that, as a great playwright once wrote, attention must be paid to such a person.”
The high-profile population of that cast list does have the potential to lead to some cognitive dissonance, as Eric Kohn’s Indiewire review points out:
“At this point, ‘The Butler’ falters: Using famous faces to play famous names creates an unintentionally comedic effect. The first glimpses of Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower and John Cusack doing a mild Richard Nixon impersonation invite immediate chortles — as does Liev Schreiber, whose broad and cranky caricature of a constipated Lyndon B. Johnson involves a scene in which he sits on the can and orders Gaines to bring him prune juice. Here, Daniels’ campy qualities threaten to overtake the material, but these irreverent asides mercifully recede as Gaines bears witness to historical events from multiple angles at once.”
Ultimately, the historical ground that the film has to cover leaves some of the many subplots disappointingly thin, as Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson describes:
“‘The Butler’ is best when it illustrates how two generations of African-Americans approached civil rights in vastly different ways, causing friction in countless families. Sadly, the tension between Cecil and Louis is treated simplistically — the movie has too many other plot strands, including relationship woes between Cecil and Gloria, to stay focused anywhere for too long — but Whitaker and Oyelowo’s supple performances suggest the bruised but still lingering bond between this father and son…Nonetheless ‘The Butler’ at least attempts to offer some nuanced insight into the African-American civil rights struggle, serving as a necessary reminder that there are always opposing viewpoints in a movement.”
Finally, Katey Rich answers the most important of questions, “How is Oprah???” Of Ms. Winfrey’s performance, Rich had this to say in her Cinema Blend review:
“In her first screen performance since 1998’s ‘Beloved,’ and never acting for a second like she’s anything less than the most famous person in the cast, Oprah is straight-up channeling Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’ She pours herself drinks and swans around the house, donning a series of wigs as Cecil’s troubled, outrageously bored wife, careening toward alcoholism while her husband is busy caring for Presidential families. It’s an odd note to strike in a movie that’s otherwise doggedly devoted to the story of what the poster calls how ‘one quiet voice can ignite a revolution,’ but as out of place as she may be, Oprah brings some much-needed levity– and eventually high drama– to the film.”