All of the actors are good. The screenplay is good. The message is supportable. The direction and filming artistically sound, maybe even excellent.
And yet I was not moved on either the first or second viewing (and yes I have now seen this one twice). Maybe the message was too obvious, too much in my face, too easy to support. Maybe the actors weren’t given space to portray enough emotion. Maybe the famous person cameos distracted me too much (and they did) to allow me to ever fully immerse. (After Laurence Fishburne’s short appearance, I kept waiting to see the next famous person.)
Maybe the film tried to cover such a long period of time that it could never tarry in any one particular era. Maybe the voice over told me too much too often. Maybe Cecil was a fairly boring character who didn’t really step out of himself and didn’t do much to impact the world around him; he simply observed the people who were “doing stuff.” And maybe it was that David Oyelowo’s Louis Gaines was a more interesting character with a more interesting arc than Cecil, but still received less screen time. I don’t know precisely what it was, but it was something, and I wasn’t moved.
The person with whom I saw the film a second time pointed out a theme I had not previously considered: one of the lessons in The Butler is that patiently working hard can have powerful impact. That is certainly true, and Daniels communicates this message well, maybe even exceptionally well. In the end, however, I think he was reaching for more, and I think he falls a bit short, which still leaves me feeling unmoved.
I was nonetheless entertained, on both viewings. Forest Whitaker was excellent as Cecil. Addendum after the second viewing: I originally said Whitaker was not award worthy special. I was wrong. His was a wonderfully subtle, understated performance. To date, it is one of the finest pieces of acting in 2013.
Liev Schreiber was also dynamic as Lyndon Johnson.
The scene-stealer remained Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines. The script’s treatment of her character’s struggles and maturation was so subtle that it needed a woman who could make the subtleties come to life without going over the top. Winfrey did just that. I was only ever riveted when she was on screen.
Of all the famous “cameos” Terrence Howard as Howard was the one I question most. The actor was fine, but the character was not. He needed more treatment, as did his import to Gloria.
The state dinner to which Cecil and Gloria were invited (by Nancy Reagan) as guests could have been a magically tense scene, if only Daniels hadn’t let the voice over tell the story. I wish I could have seen Whitaker and Winfrey navigate their way through a scene in which their characters were naught more than trophies.
This picture was entertaining, but . . . I think it wanted to be more than that. It wanted to be an emotionally moving film about an important time in United States history, not unlike last year’s Lincoln. In that way, The Butler did not succeed.
I will say, however, that the grade I assigned The Butler after my first viewing, a C, was too low. The excellently subtle performances and well developed characters warrant a higher grade than that, even if the film did not quite achieve all of its ambitions.