Oh. I forgot. The correct title of the movie is “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” In any case, I saw it tonight and, although the reviews have been very mixed, I went to the theater with eagerness. The subject of a black White House butler through several presidential administrations juxtaposed with his son’s activities during the Civil Rights movement sounded meaty and involving. My opinion? Meaty, yes. Involving, not so much.
The cast is star studded. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker plays the butler with grace and dignity. Oprah has some fine moments as the butler’s wife. Terrence Howard as their no-count friend is excellent (I just wish he’d hung around longer). Mariah Carey and Vanessa Redgrave stand out in their brief cameos. And then there’s the cavalcade of “real life” characters: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Shrieber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan (and Jane Fonda as Nancy); some are more successful at mimicry than others.
My problem with the movie, in addition to its length and slow pace, was that in its effort to be an “important film,” it forgot to tell a good story. Events are telegraphed way before they happen. Archival footage is often more gripping than the fictional scenes. There are no surprises here, and when you clock in at two-and-a-half hours that’s a lot of sitting without feeling anything.
Friends who’d seen it said I should bring Kleenex. Normally, I’m such a sap I cry at greeting card commercials, but I left the theater dry-eyed. I did get choked up at the end when Obama’s victory in 2008 is broadcast on CNN and Forest Whitaker watches in amazement, but that was it.
I wanted to like it. It means well, it really does. Maybe I should give it an “A” for effort and leave it at that.