One butler serving in the White House for over three decades sounds like a story made just for the movies. Surprisingly enough it really happened, and thanks to director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong (Emmy winner for “Game Change”), the story of Eugene Allen is now getting told on the big screen.
Inspired by Wil Haygood’s Washington Post article, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (remember that never-ending name change mess?) stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who is based on Allen. From 1952 to 1986 Gaines serves seven presidents — but the film excludes Ford and Carter who seemingly weren’t interesting enough — while struggling to balance work with family at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
With one of the biggest casts of the year — from Robin Williams to Mariah Carey — “The Butler” is already exploding with Oscar buzz. But does the historical drama hold up to the hype? Before you visit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. here are 10 things you should know about the film before you see it.
1. It Covers a LOT of Ground
“The Butler” opens on a cotton plantation and ends in the Obama-run White House, so you know a lot is going to happen in between. In the film, we meet Robin Williams’s Eisenhower for no more than three brief scenes, then in comes James Marsden‘s Kennedy, and before you know it Jackie’s covered in blood and crying. But there’s no time for mourning because Liev Schreiber‘s Lyndon Johnson then signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King gets assassinated, John Cusack‘s Nixon guzzles down some liquor, Alan Rickman hints at a senile Reagan, and suddenly Shepard Fairey’sObama “Hope” poster is plastered on lawns. Be prepared, “The Butler” moves quick.
2. It’s the Least Political “Political” Movie (Personal > Political)
While “The Butler” covers a lot of ground, it merely skims the surface on political issues. Dedicating less than 10 minutes to JFK‘s assassination and a couple forgettable scenes to that thing called the Vietnam War feels odd, almost betraying. For a film charting the evolution of racial politics in America, it unfortunately opts for summarizing highlights over delving into details. But this isn’t all bad. Daniels uses events both inside and out of the White House as the backdrop for a moving story of father and son with two separate ideologies. There’s the dedicated black father working in the white man’s White House, then the young son fighting for equal rights on the streets. “The Butler” deals with many political moments, but remains interested in the lives of those affected by them.
3. The Acting is Great
Forest Whitaker always manages to make you feel so many emotions with that face of his (it’s just so damn endearing). The humble sweetness and tenacity that he brings to Cecil is what holds the sprawling film together. Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Terrence Howard are great as the main supporting cast, adding doses of drunken and sexual humor to lighten things up (Gooding Jr. shows off his dirty side). James Marsden stands out as the most refreshing presidential portrayal, hitting the accent spot on, and David Oyelowo gives the film’s most emotional performance as Cecil’s eldest son, Louis.
4. Oprah Is So Oprah
Of course she’s over-the-top and dramatic (we love it), but she’s also hilarious. In one scene Winfrey dons a black-and-white disco jumpsuit with hoop earrings and a giant fro (sadly not as big as the one she wore on the cover of the September issue of O), and boogies to music à la “Dance Fever.” She also sports a neon track suit when the ’80s come along (we probably weren’t supposed to laugh during this serious scene, but we blame wardrobe/80s fashion for that). Most importantly, Oprahimpresses her friends with dinner and gives us her latest Favorite Thing: adding dill to your potato salad. (Do it.)
5. It Has the Least On-Screen Time Ever for Most of the Cast
Vanessa Redgrave shows up for a New York minute, Mariah Carey mumbles a word or two, Jane Fonda briefly strides through the White House as Nancy Reagan, and each president drops in long enough to just recognize them beneath the makeup. At first you may feel cheated — and wonder when the heck Redgrave is coming back (she doesn’t) — yet the brief cameos are just enough. No one overstays their welcome nor steals the spotlight from the center of the film: the Gaines family.
6. The Makeup Is Incredible
Making some of Hollywood’s biggest actors look like iconic American presidents and aging them over a 50-year span is no easy task. Robin Williams becomes Eisenhower’s doppelganger with his balding, grey wisps; with added weight and wrinkles Liev Schreiber is an ideal Johnson; and a shiny-facedAlan Rickman and red-gowned Jane Fonda could easily be mistaken for the real Reagans. If anything, “The Butler” is definitely taking home the golden statue for Best Makeup.
7. The Louis Gaines Story Isn’t True
Although the majority of “The Butler” is historically accurate, one of the main and best subplots isn’t. In the film, Cecil’s oldest son Louis makes waves with his father when he joins the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. Louis’s story is one of the most moving of the film and helps show the Civil Rights Movement as it happened on the streets outside of the White House, but unfortunately it isn’t true.
8. It Doesn’t Rely on Actual Footage
So many political films use actual footage of presidents and news broadcasts to depict events, but that can get repetitive and boring. How many times do we want to see/hear JFK’s Inaugural Address in a movie? When read by Marsden, however, it feels refreshing and inventive. Daniels does scatter a few actual clips of Freedom Bus ambushes and sit-ins to give us a dose of reality, but it’s never too much to take us out of the film.
9. It’s an Oscar Shoo-In
Could it be any more of a given? Roundup a huge cast of favorites, retell a historical moment, and portray real presidents and you’ve got yourself some Oscar noms. It’s an easy formula to follow (unfortunately) and “The Butler” definitely nailed it. But the question is, does it deserve to win? While it’s still too early to tell, on its own Daniels’s film has some worthy contenders, most notably Winfrey (although she deserved it much more for “The Color Purple”) and Oyelowo for Supporting, as well as Makeup and Costume Design. Best Picture however, we’re not too keen on, but then again sometimes these things happen when they shouldn’t. Speaking of which …
10. It’s Good, But…
Yes, everything is good about “The Butler,” but with its gigantic cast and lengthy ambitions it is, as a whole, underwhelming. Daniels’s film is at best an ostentatious recap of American history, a perfect refresher for a high school U.S. history class. It may even get some tears by the end — OK, we shed a few, but they were more an admiration for national heroes than for the film itself. Sure, it appears to have all the mechanics of a great, timeless movie, but there’s nothing more than embellishment and summary here. It is not only the film’s immense scale or devotion to history that fail it — in comparison, “Forrest Gump” charted history similarly, just better — but mainly its lack of personality. More keen on name dropping than complex storytelling, “The Butler” fails to get at anything tangible or tell us what we don’t already know. Daniels simply picked up a U.S. history textbook and cast Hollywood’s finest; it’s entertaining, but forgettable.
This article was originally featured on Moviefone on August 14, 2013.