PG-13 (some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking); 132 min.
Occasionally moving, sweeping in ambition yet often haphazard in execution, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an epic that more closely resembles a made-for-TV movie or miniseries, albeit one from the high-minded heyday of TV movies, the ’70s.
Covering more than 80 years of American history through the eyes of a White House butler and his family, The Butler features Oscar winner Forest Whitaker in the title role, Oscar nominee Oprah Winfrey as co-star, and Oscar winners Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Redgrave in supporting roles.
We follow a sharecropper’s son who saw his father murdered by a white landowner (Alex Pettyfer) in 1920s Georgia, a boy raised to know service who rose from hotel waiter and butler to the White House, just as Eisenhower (Williams) is deciding to send troops into Little Rock, Ark., to integrate the schools.
Meanwhile, at home, Cecil’s wife Gloria (Winfrey) drinks and tries to raise their two sons in the absence of a husband who lets his job come first.
But as a movie, Lee Daniels’ The Butler — the title was the subject of Hollywood arbitration — is as ungainly as that title. It’s a maddeningly spotty exercise, covering too much too quickly, with clunky, pointless narration and soap opera-ish melodrama taking attention from the sweep of history.
Daniels (Precious) is at a loss to get all the history and adequate screen time for that embarrassment of acting riches. And the director of the atrocious Paper Boy neglected to get convincing impersonations from some of the actors playing these famous public figures.
All that said, though, there are heartfelt moments that remind us why this “inspired by a true story” seemed moving enough to film. All this really did happen over the course of the life of one man (the real butler’s name was Eugene Allen).
The patchwork story and pacing robs The Butler of the wit and heart that might have made it a companion piece to the far simpler and more powerful The Help.
— Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service