The Butler review: Stellar cast for a dull film on American history

You could call The Butler a potted history of modern America, but it’s probably more enjoyable if you considering it a drinking game: one shot for every black celebrity you spot in the film.

Deepanjana Pal October 25, 2013 15:01:33 IST
The Butler review: Stellar cast for a dull film on American history

You could call The Butler a potted history of modern America, but it’s probably more enjoyable if you considering it a drinking game: one shot for every black celebrity you spot in the film.

There are so many spot-the-celebrity moments in this film, that I was half expecting Jay Z and Beyoncé to show up at the end as Barack and Michelle Obama. That didn’t happen, but everyone else, from Mariah Carey to Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr, got a look in.

Forest Whitaker plays the fictionalised role of Eugene Allen, a black man who was born a slave and retired as the head butler of the White House.

The Butler review Stellar cast for a dull film on American history

Courtesy: ibn live

Rechristened Cecil Gaines for the purposes of Lee Daniels’s film, Whitaker is the man behind the scenes. He waits on different presidents, serving them tea and learning to become as memorable as wallpaper, while America twists and turns in political maelstroms. This means watching people like Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan walk through the rooms of the White House.

Meanwhile, his neglected family goes through its own turmoil. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) journeys through alcoholism and infidelity. Cecil’s son, Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes involved in different political movements, fighting for the rights of black Americans. Much to Cecil’s embarrassment, he lands up in jail repeatedly.

It’s a beautiful idea that’s executed with extreme banality and almost no subtlety. Most of the acting is laboured and the dialogues sound either awkward or pompous.

The film fails to impress upon the audience the irony of how orderly and tranquil it is within the White House when outside its manicured lawns, America is being torn apart by violence and turbulence. Actors like Terence Howard are wasted in miniscule roles and there’s no explaining why Mariah Carey wanted to appear for a blink-and-miss-it role that required her only to be led away from a cotton field by an evil plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) to be raped. She has nothing else to do in the film, literally.

The other singer in the film, Kravitz, has a more sizeable role as one of the Cecil’s colleagues in the White House. It might take a moment to recognise Kravitz without his piercings, but that’s him in the tuxedo and he does a good job of his little role.

Cuba Gooding Jr is the one ray of light in this laboured attempt at an epic. Whitaker and Winfrey are playing parts that are less roles and more Oscar bait and their performances are terribly ponderous. Weighed down by the pretentiousness of a bland and boring script, they have few moments of spontaneity and credible emotion.

The Butler fails both as a film and as a historical document. If you want a crash course in American history, watch Forrest Gump instead.

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