Lee Daniels: The Butler – Hey Cecil, serve me up another!

LEE DANIELSthe-butler-forest-whitaker has produced a great, but long, biopic of Eugene Allen, White House butler for 34 years. However, Allen is not used in name and instead Daniels uses Cecil Gaines as the vehicle for the telling of this long-term tale.

At an above average two hours and ten minutes, it weighs in fairly heavy when you consider that cinema-goers are currently being fed on the B-movie average running time of 90 minutes. But believe me, this story needs it. Gaines, played by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, serves as the passive observer under seven successive US Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).

John Cusack plays Richard Nixon and Liev Schreiber plays Lyndon B. Johnson, far removed from his recent role as hitman to the rich and famous in Showtime’s hit drama Ray Donovan. Rickman appears to find it a challenge to remove himself from the role of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise, or perhaps it’s just that he plays every role with such withdrawn and believable presence. Cusack as Nixon is clunky, and the only example of realistic behaviour is a plastic nose from the make-up department. Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, Cecil’s faithful and loveable wife, is sure to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the ever more politically charged Academy Awards.

Most film lovers query why the formula of packing a film with a number of A-Listers doesn’t always translate to a successful film. It feels as if Daniels is trying to get all the actors in with a wedge. Contrary to this air of negativity, it actually works because he also stays true to the history of the time. The film runs from Gaines’ beginnings as a young boy in the cotton fields, with cameos from Vanessa Redgrave, to dealing with his son’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and his youngest son joining up for Vietnam, to the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008. The timing of the film’s ending is contrived or poignant, depending on your personal perspective. It would be wrong for such a story not to be translated onto the big screen.

Whitaker carries off Gaines with ease and grace, a pedigree actor surrounded in a kennel of the same breed. Redgrave, as an example, is currently performing at the Old Vic in London alongside James Earl Jones. From an acting perspective, it is A**. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. weigh in with cameos of their own, while James Marsden turns up as JFK. The most surprising cameo is that of Mariah Carey. When you see it for yourself, play a game to spot her.

The cast is massive, rightly so, but it brings a needless pace to the action even though the film goes far past the two-hour mark. As we come up to Awards Season, if I was Daniels and his crew I would be hopeful of recognition for a great ‘project’. The Oscar Statuette is your meal ticket for the rest of your career, but I would mark it out to win an SAG, AFI or Golden Globe rather than taking the Oscars by storm on March 2nd.