Lee Daniels' The Butler gets an A for effort, that's for sure. There's nothing about this film that doesn't scream to be a thing. The problem is that for all the good intentions and interesting casting (both inspired and cringe-inducing), Danny Strong's story is too simplistic to be taken seriously. That doesn't keep the film from being self-serious to the point of near-parody.
And oof, that casting. I appreciate what Daniels was trying to do, stunt casting the presidents in this film, but it's not just distracting, it's an utter disaster, and the minimal time each president is on screen drags down the film to an outsized degree. First, the good: James Marsden is a game John F. Kennedy, despite his limited range as an actor. Liev Schreiber throws his all into his portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, and his energy provides the only real, enjoyable Presidential moments in the film. And Alan Rickman bears a decent facial resemblance to Ronald Reagan.
And the bad: everyone else. Robin Williams is a disaster as Dwight Eisenhower. Alan Rickman gives what might be his flattest performance as Ronald Reagan, and his accent is atrocious, among the worst I've seen. The worst, however, might be John Cusack playing Richard Nixon as a cartoon, which is really indicative of the tone of the overall film. The entire film is populated with melodramatic caricatures, and while melodrama and outlandishness have their place, it doesn't work when those characters are entirely bland.
There are some bright spots. The scenes between the three Black White House butlers (Forest Whitaker, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr.) are enjoyable. Oprah Winfrey gives an outstanding performance as, first and foremost, a real person. She's also a beleaguered wife and worried mother, and she injects all three roles with pathos and humanity. Perhaps the most interesting and impressive characteristic of The Butler is that the viewpoint of the film is rarely shifted to the white people occupying the story, or at least less so than most mainstream films with any commentary on racism. It's not a vehicle for white people to collectively pat ourselves on the back for how far we've come, a la The Help, and that's a very good thing.
Still, the film has a similar structure to a film like Forrest Gump (though it's not a perfect analog), and that's not to its credit. Part of the problem is that to tell a story in such a rigid format requires a series of coincidences so ludicrous it almost requires a fanciful air, and The Butler is almost suffocated by its seriousness. It isn't helped by its desire to grab at poignant moments at every turn – it's how you end up with Ronald Reagan, unrepentant civil rights opponent, confiding in Cecil that he may have been wrong about civil rights this whole time.
Really, the problem is that Daniels and Strong try to do either too much, or too little. I think The Butler could have made an excellent mini-series, or removed the storylines involving Cecil's son (David Oyelowo), expanded the scenes within the White House and brought the film in at 90 minutes. Instead, the film is both superficial and a bloated mess. Daniels is a talented director; his brand of manic, lurid filmmaking is going to produce some outstanding films. The Butler is not one of them.
Note: There are inevitable racial questions that arise whenever a film gets identified as a "Black film" (which, ugh). I don't think myself particularly qualified to answer these questions; I made a conscious decision, rightly or wrongly, to restrict my review to the quality of the film absent the racial implications. For an excellent piece on the racial politics and implications of The Butler, read Chauncey DeVega's review at We Are Respectable Negroes.