The Butler would be a perfect example of a movie in which a fantastic plot is let down by poor, heavy-handed screenwriting and directing. At its core, the memoirs of an African-American man who served American presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan set alongside the civil rights movement and important civil rights events during that time is vibrant, interesting and haunting.
Indeed, there were some points in the film where the greatness of this story is both seen and felt acutely, but they were few and far between. More often than not, the scenes felt annoyingly heavy-handed in terms of dialogue, narration and directing. While the events depicted in the film would obviously elicit a strong emotional response, it felt like the film demanded you feel that way.
Apart from this, the movie failed to live up to expectations because it failed to surpass a hurdle often seen in biographical movies – the challenge of telling a cohesive rather than an episodic story. This led to the film feeling disjointed. The revolving door of well-known actors and actresses playing these iconic parts also added to the disconnection from the story. Somehow, the interplay of all these famous actors took away from the events happening on-screen and the emotional weight behind the movie. It also didn’t help that their appearances on-screen seemed to signify events in themselves, which detracted from the events actually occurring in the movie. While other movies have made it work, this one didn’t.
The acting mostly ranged from great to decent. Forest Whitaker, who played Cecil Gaines, and David Oyelowo, who played his son Louis, both put on great performances. In their limited roles, the actors and actresses who played American presidents and first ladies were all decent. Though none particularly stood out, no one was given much to work with either. While Oprah Winfrey, as his wife Gloria, is getting all the Oscar buzz, and as the frontrunner, I found her performance to be cloying and lacking. She wasn’t terrible by any means. But the averageness of her performance was more glaring given the surrounding hype.
The Butler is an emotionally evocative film with plenty of historical gravity behind it. But while certain scenes or sequences were breathtaking, The Butler mostly felt like an overly long, rambling memoir. A reliance on the cheap thrills of name recognition and uncomfortable current political agenda-setting also added to the overall chunkiness of the film saved only by its emotional, well-meaning pull and decent performances from some of its star-studded cast.