'Lee Daniels' The Butler' is too ambitious but some moments hit home

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'The Butler' actors Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey both turn in commendable performances.

Anne Marie Fox/The Weinstein Company/AP
Oprah Winfrey (l.) and Forest Whitaker (r.) star in 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'

Lee Daniels' The Butler” – that’s the official title but we can just call it “The Butler” – is about Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a server at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. between 1957 and 1986.  His story is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who died in 2010. Cecil’s life spans his boyhood in the brutally segregated South to the election of President Obama. His wife, Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey in her first dramatic role since 1998’s “Beloved,” stands by him through all the tumult – the Freedom Rides and the assassinations and race riots. Their son Louis (David Oyelowo) regards Cecil as an Uncle Tom and becomes radicalized in the Black Power movement. Gloria battles alcoholism. Throughout it all, amid much indignity, Cecil maintains his pride.

Ungainly and overly ambitious, “The Butler” tries to encompass too much history within too narrow a framework. Daniels utilizes Cecil as a "Zelig"-like character to reflect three decades of social and racial upheaval. Although Whitaker gives a sturdy, commendable performance, his character is made to bear too much symbolic weight. And having a parade of presidents hurried through the piece – played none too convincingly by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (Nixon), and Alan Rickman (Reagan) – only adds to the film’s once-over-lightly, flashcard quality.

Winfrey is good, though, demonstrating yet again that she’s an actress and not just a celebrity playing an actress. Moments in this film, particularly in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., hit home. Given the subject matter, how could they not? But it’s also a bit weird – almost Pirandellian -- watching Winfrey play a woman who cries during Obama’s election victory speech. In that moment, it’s unavoidable: We’re not watching Gloria, we’re watching Oprah, the president’s close friend and major touter. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.)

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