Monday, September 2, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Anybody in the mood for a lowest common denominator Oscar bait movie?  Summer is now over, the Blockbuster season has now gone the way of Blockbuster Video, and now its time for the Weinstein brothers and their competitors to start the race for those golden naked men statues and the millions of dollars that come with them.  And along the way, maybe some actual high-minded dramas can actually get made.  Let's have the season start with a sanctimonious cornball poser of historical dramas.

America has spoken and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is now the biggest hit of August, probably thanks to being the first human drama of any dimension to get a wide release at all.  When your competition is stupid action adventure, anything that even attempts to have any deeper meaning is going to scratch a badly-needed itch.  Especially to American audiences who really want to be congratulated for killing all racism decades ago, thus letting us feel better that our society has improved so much.  I'm not being condescending, in such difficult times as ours, its fine to want to look back and create heroes out of the struggles we've overcome.  Non-offensive uncontroversial hero struggles are comforting, though we really shouldn't let the cheeriness of this production, or the real power of the historical issues it glosses over, fog the fact that "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a simply bad movie.

I'll start immediately by handing over respect to the ambition of Lee Daniels and "Lee Daniels' The Butler: Directed by Lee Daniels" in his creation of this film.  Taking the relatively small and constrained story of an African American butler working in the White House during the height of the civil rights era and transforming it into nothing less than a massive epic of the entire story of Black America in the 20th century sure is impressive, if ultimately impossible.  There's just too much going on in this film for it be coherent:  part political drama set in the quiet servant realm of America's royal court, part biography full of family conflicts, and part vast epoch of the great racial struggles of the last century - its certainly a lot of movie.  If it had just been the first part, using the refined high culture of the White House as a foil for the brutal struggles of Black people against Jim Crow, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" would have been a perfectly fine movie.  Instead its a bloated, slow, ultimately pointless maudlin monster, hardly watchable if not for the subject matter bringing up deep memories in its (rather elderly) intended audience.  This is less a movie than going to Church.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a perfect "Grandma Movie".  A non-controversial period piece that's perfect to bring your grandma to.  Hell, I actually did bring my grandma to see "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and she liked it.  You know, for somebody who actually lived through all these historical events, they certainly have deeper meaning than to me or my generation, who basically consider racism to be as much of a relic of the past as monarchies and titles of nobility.  Yeah, there's still the occasional Treyvon Martin media circus and there are real racial divisions left this country, but its all essentially relics by this point.  No politician would dare support the old racial caste system unless they wanted to join the freaks and lunatics hiding in Montana caves hording ammunition for the apocalypse.  But I guess we call still enjoy real stories of overcoming adversity and fighting against evil societies, those are universal stories of human drama.  If only "Lee Daniels' The Butler" had done that well - at all.

I like Forest Whitaker as an actor and I believe he could definitely be a great lead in a movie of this type.  Unfortunately his role as the great White House butler is never all that well-defined.  Whatever ambitions this character might have had are fulfilled almost immediately as soon as he joins the White House staff, afterwards the film is mostly about him staying in that position, merely observing great events rather than taking part in them.  Yeah, he meets presidents (all played by a series of bizarre stunt-casted actors, but we'll get to that issue in a moment), but at no point does it seem like his presence is really influencing the great men he's serving.  Worse, the movie has to go out of its way to create an entire second protagonist in the butler's son, an actual civil rights crusader battling inequality in the trenches, in what amounts to an entire second film.  Whitaker's character has so little charisma, he's barely a presence at all.  It isn't until a tense argument way late in the film when Whitaker finally explodes with energy and rage did it feel like the man was really putting any work into the film at all.  And I'm not blaming the lead for playing a mediocre part, I have to blame the director and the writer.

Its strange to say that a movie that is two hours long does not have a plot, but its hard to say exactly what "Lee Daniels' The Butler"'s plot was.  There's really no arc to the main character, so the story has no beginning, middle, or end.  Yeah, there's a point where the movie is an hour in and has an hour to go - and you'll know precisely when this moment is because you'll be checking your watch a lot - but it never feels like we're at the middle of the story.   Actually from forty-five minutes onward I actually thought the film might be in the process of winding down, there's so little structure.  There are mountains of side characters and side plotlines which ultimately go nowhere.  History lurches along with the characters reacting to it, rather than it feeling like an organic part of the story.  And when your realize "oh god, this movie is taking forever and its only the Nixon administration now" you start to panic because there is no indication at all that the film is going to end in 1969 or 2013 or even 3013*.

Biopics are typically a very loosely-plotting kind of film, but usually there can be at least some kind of focus.  "Ray" wasn't about the entire universe of Ray Charles' life, it was about his early career and his drug problem.  "The Butler" is about life, liberty, and every damn event in American history.  Which was probably the intention, to be about all African Americans, with these characters just figments of the entire experience, but it doesn't make for compelling drama when the basics of the story are barely there.

You can see how horribly bloated this film is just by checking the cast list and seeing the simply insane number of people who perform in this.  This means that aside from the core family around the butler, barely anybody has much screen presence.  We open with about a dozen key characters in the butler's upbringing, including his mother, his father, two mentors, a rapist White racist, and his immediate boss in the White House, all of whom get maybe two scenes.  In order to properly show off the full breath and width of the characters in this film - to do everything justice - we would need a "War and Peace" of films over ten hours long.  Four presidents are in this film, each getting barely any screentime, when the whole point - I thought - was about the common Black man brushing up and shaping the Great Men.

Of course, one person who actually does get proper screentime is Oprah's character - because she's Oprah.  She even gets an alcoholism problem and a potential lover in Terrence Howard, both plot points that essentially add up to nothing and easily could have been deleted.

By the way, the movie carries itself with such heavy drama, which at times is appropriate for the deep civil rights conflicts, but ultimately makes most of the film humorless.  It comes to the point that the only jokes appear to be seemingly random casting for the Presidents.  Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan, John Cusack does the single worst Richard Nixon I've ever seen, Liev Schreiber is LBJ**, and last but not least, Robin Williams is Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Yeah, Patch Adams is Ike.  Yeah, the Genie is the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.  Yeah, Flubber is in the White House.  The funny thing is that Robin Williams seems to think he's playing Truman instead of Ike.  Did they spin a roulette wheel or pick actors' names out of a hat?

I guess ultimately this entire review is pointless, because the audience of old men and ladies sure enjoyed it, they even applauded.  Because it comes with historical gravitas, even if ultimately its conclusion is just "look how far we've come".  That's what the people want.  This is a pleaser to its public, and so what if I didn't like it.  Am I an elitist prick who say that these people are fooling themselves?  No, they see a meaning I can't, because this is the Black "Forrest Grump".  Its "Forest Whitaker Gump", only far less fun and much more of a downer.  But even those who did enjoy it probably liked it more of a sense of obligation to enjoy the material than out of real love of solid movie making.  "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is just not a good movie, I am sorry.  But its heart seems to be in the right place, its not a cynical cash grab like so many other flawed movies have been.  Its good to see a failure that's at least loved by its creator.

* Which I hope will be the setting in a film I am really excited about "Lee Daniels' The Butler: 2 Butler 2 Furious", featuring an cyborg Forrest Whitaker at the Space White House.

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