Director Lee Daniels is star struck, and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" would be a better movie if he wasn't.
The movie is anchored by a quiet, powerful performance by Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who was a butler at the White House for seven Presidents. The job of a White House butler is to be invisible, to not react as history plays out before him, and Whitaker manages to maintain that facade while still giving a glimpse into his mind as politicians argue issues that have real-life implications for the "invisible" man in the room.
Whitaker, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor playing Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," likely will pick up another nomination for his work here. He's the perfect choice for the role. He's talented and familiar without really being famous. With the help of some impressive makeup work, particularly in making him look younger in the scenes set in the mid-'50s, he dissolves into the role.
Unfortunately, he's one of the only ones who does.
Daniels has filled "The Butler" with stars, many of them playing people even more famous than they are. Maybe it was a necessity to get the needed financing for a movie that doesn't feature robots and isn't based on a comic book.
But the casting becomes more of a distraction than an asset - Robin Williams as President Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as President Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as President Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda as his wife Nancy (poor Sean Hannity could have a stroke on the air ranting about "Hanoi Jane" playing Reagan's wife).
WHAT: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"
STARS: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Yaya Alifia, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda and Mariah Carey.
STORYLINE: A White House butler is witness to history.
DIRECTOR: Lee Daniels
RATING: PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
A common remark in reviews of biofilms is something like, "After a couple minutes, I forgot I was watching (insert actor's name) on screen and just saw (the character)."
The problem here is many of these roles are glorified cameos. They're not around long enough to make that transition. The first time Williams spoke as Eisenhower, a chuckle rippled through the theater. A couple minutes later, he's gone. There's not enough time to see Ike and not hear Mork.
Watching Cusack (with a prosthetic ski-slope nose) as Nixon is just disorienting. Rickman's resemblance to Reagan is uncanny, even though he sounds nothing like him.
Famous faces don't just play presidents. Mariah Carey was impressive in a large supporting role in Daniels' "Precious." Here she plays Cecil's mother, on screen just long enough to be raped by a plantation owner's son and then go insane/mute after the same man murders her husband. The part is so small, her presence diminishes, rather than amplifies, the impact.
Perhaps the most problematic casting is Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's wife, Gloria. Unlike the presidents, it's a substantial part, maybe second in screen time only to Whitaker. Gloria is a complex character. She's a drinker and a carouser. She loves her husband, but those late nights he spends at the White House leave her lonely and wanting something more.
At a packed preview screening, it was clear the audience was reacting to some of her behavior, not as Gloria, but as, "Look what Oprah's doing." Winfrey's clout probably helped get the movie made, but someone like Viola Davis playing Gloria would have made it a better movie.
But while there are times that "The Butler" is in danger of becoming an absolute train wreck, Daniels never loses control. The domestic drama as Cecil clashes with his older son Louis (David Oyelowo), who isn't content to be invisible and wait for the white politicians to do something about civil rights, is compelling. And the movie is at its best when it takes viewers behind the scenes at the White House as Cecil interacts with the other butlers (well played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) or when it focuses on Cecil at home. A party scene with the Gaines, their neighbors (Terrence Howard, Adriane Lenox) and their children has a looseness and naturalness that too often is lacking.
Daniels skillfully juxtaposes the pomp and pageantry of statehouse dinners with the ugliness of the civil rights' fight, although he relies on this construct too often (the man clearly is a big fan of the baptism scene from "The Godfather").
The director is smart enough to know Whitaker is his best asset, and he allows him to shine. His performance and the subject matter may be enough to satisfy some audiences.