Subtlety, thy name is not Lee Daniels. While The Butler is far more restrained than Precious or hot messes like Shadowboxer and The Paperboy, it oscillates wildly from melodrama to genuine comedy. One minute, we're seeing Freedom Riders beaten mercilessly by vicious Southerners, the next Cuba Gooding, Jr. is busting out his James Brown impression.
Thematically, this movie is all over the place. Yet it succeeds because its two leads "” Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey "” keep it anchored in reality. Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who served in the White House under eight administrations. But its biggest connection to history is also its biggest weakness.
Daniels has stuffed his film with big-name actors doing a few minutes here and there as the Commanders in Chief. None are especially egregious "” though John Cusack's sleepwalking Richard Nixon is the worst of the lot "” it leaves one big question: Why? Why is Robin Williams playing Dwight Eisenhower? Or Liev Schreiber playing LBJ? Or Alan Rickman playing Ronald Reagan? Each actor is onscreen for no more than five minutes, so none ever get to make an impression. Inexplicably, Ford and Carter get left out. The film would have worked better if we never saw the presidents at all.
Besides, this is really the story of a meek, hard-working man during the chaos and progress of the Civil Rights Movement. The struggle at the heart of the movie is between Cecil and his son (the terrific David Oyelowo), who moves from sit-ins to militancy to politics as the years go on.
And The Butler covers a lot of years. That's another weakness: it simply tries to do too much in a short amount of time. Still, it can't help but be rousing and inspiring. That's one of the qualities I most admire in Daniels. Unlike Spike Lee, Daniels' movies, however grim, never seethe with anger. There's a much more gentle touch to material as delicate as this, even if some of his points seem too obvious.
Beyond the inspiration, the biggest reason to see this movie is the terrific performances. Whitaker absolutely sinks into the role. His increasingly slow gait is one of the many ways he expresses the weight of the world on his shoulders. Even better, and worthy of all this preliminary Oscar buzz, is Oprah. She's so good as Cecil's wife Gloria you forget she's the most famous woman in the world.
While The Butler could have used some focus, and a lot less stunt casting, there's no denying it's a powerful film in its own right, and much more than something history teachers can show on Movie Day.