The Butler (2013)

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I have never reviewed a movie later than the year 2000! Unless you count my extremely, extremely brief paragraph on Prisoners lol. To be honest, I haven’t watched many of the movies that have been garnering awards buzz besides Gravity, which I really loved personally. So yes, I decided that I should stop focusing so much on those old movies and do something…recent instead.

So instead of picking a movie that has been receiving positive reviews, I’ve decided to go with one that has been fairly divisive. Some people seem to go absolutely crazy for The Butler, while some reviewers on IMDB tore it to pieces. To be honest, I didn’t have any high expectations when I started watching, because the trailer looked incredibly corny and underwhelming. But is it the case for the movie?

If you don’t know what the movie is about, it basically depicts the story of this White House butler Cecil Gaines, and his observations and reactions towards the main political events taking place back then. The movie basically takes you on a whirlwind tour of American History, and it also addresses the issue of racism in America.

Now, I have read several criticisms of this movie being a propaganda film…and…I hate to say this, but I think there is some truth to it. In fact, I don’t even think the film-makers are trying to hide it, sometimes it really feels that there are a lot of political messages being slapped continuously into your head, and it got a bit annoying. There are times where I felt as if I was watching a Jack Neo movie, with all the characters sitting together and openly discussing the presidents and the government. It’s interesting to note how almost all the presidents are depicted as incompetent slobs, but I have…no comments with regards to that. I guess this aspect of the movie didn’t bother me as much as others, maybe because I’m not an American so I couldn’t care less. But at the same time, I do think that it’s message about racism is a very important one. No one should ever be judged by the colour of their skin, or be denied equal rights just because they are deemed to be an inferior race. And I really stand by this, especially when I hear of how some of my friends studying in Australia are being discriminated against just for being Asian.

However, I feel that this doesn’t excuse the film for its rather messy narrative. The main problem is that it covers too much. If you try to cover Eisehower, LBJ, Nixon, Kennedy and Reagan in a 2 hour movie, you can almost imagine what it is going to be like: Messy. It’s mind-boggling to me how they managed to get all this big stars to appear in their respective cameos roles as the presidents (I guess the stars really believed in the movie). Sadly, given how brief their appearances are, there is nothing insightful and I feel like they can even do away with this portion. The presidents are like mere caricatures, and it’s very disappointing in this aspect. There’s nothing wrong if you want to criticise but I feel like you have to make a much stronger case instead of presenting things in such a shallow and obviously biased manner.

I wished I could say that the dramatic aspect of the story was better worked out, but I felt nothing towards it. Like I’ve said before, whatever happened was a very dark and harrowing part of history, but the movie chooses to adopt a very melodramatic approach to tell the story. I felt like I was watching a freaking Hallmark movie at times. The characterization is quite weak, and although I can (sort of) understand the character’s motives, such as why the older son decided to rebel while the younger son decided to join the war (*Edited later: Actually no, I don’t get it. That character was barely touched upon in the movie, so his decision feels very abrupt and illogical. I instantly predicted that he was going to die the moment he made that announcement, and guess what? -.-), it is portrayed in such a clichéd way that I found myself rolling my eyes more than once. The scenes don’t flow very well either, and it feels as though the director is just throwing a whole chunk of tear jerking scenes in the audience faces, which makes it very manipulative. I’m just someone who believes that less is more. There are also scenes where the dialogue feels very contrived and unnatural, and I have to mention that the father-son relationship is explored rather weakly (The whole dinner sequence where Oprah smacks the son was lacking in tension, in my opinion), but I felt that it got better in the second half.

The acting is quite good, but I don’t get why people are orgasming over Oprah’s performance. I think she was very good, in fact I felt that she was better than I had expected. Maybe because I was expecting a “Look! Oprah can ACT!” performance in her usual Oprah fashion, so it was quite nice to see how subtle and nuanced her performance was (Not a fan of her colour purple performance, sorry). I really liked some of her scenes, such as when she was asking how many shoes Jackie O has, and when she was saying goodbye to her son at the bus station. I think she captured the loneliness of the character quite well. But honestly, the screenplay wasn’t very well written, so I felt like it prevented the performance from reaching its full potential. The alcoholic scenes didn’t even leave much of an impression for me because everything went by so fast. So you can imagine I was quite surprised when they showed her at the recovering phase, because I was like, huh wait, when was she drunk?

I liked Forest Whitaker’s performance, and I felt that he gave the best performance of the film. Sure, he probably had the least to do because his role is more of than of an observer, but I really liked all the tiny details he added in the scenes where he was serving the presidents, such as the subtle disappointment/anger/frustration while trying to keep a blank face at the same time. His performance somehow reminded me of Sir Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of The Day, although that’s probably a better written character. By the way, this is a bit OT,  but I need to mention that I am an absolute sucker for quiet, subtle performances that people usually hate. I really disagree when people say that the actors did “nothing”; sure, maybe they aren’t pulling their hair out and screaming, but not every character is a Nina Sayers/Edith Piaf/Aileen Wuornos/Blanche Dubois, right? In fact, I love observing all the tiny details that the actors add to portray all these ordinary but complex characters. Sure, some people might find them boring, but I find such characters more sympathetic (I also love the louder performances, don’t get me wrong), it’s like following a neighbour/friend/acquaintance that you have known for a long time and watching how they deal with certain problems/situations in their lives. Some of my favourites include: Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of The Day (His best after The Silence of the Lambs, in my opinion), Patricia Neal in Hud (I really loved the scene where she was talking about her ex-husband), Jane Fonda in Coming Home, Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs (No apologies, I love the performance), Emma Thompson in Howards End, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole…

That being said, I think some of the corny dialogue did affect the credibility of Whitaker’s performance, but I think he managed to pull it off in general. His performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is probably the role he is best known for (deservedly), so it’s nice to see him in such a quiet role for a change.

So what about the Oscar chances for this movie? Hahaha I don’t know. It got totally snubbed by the globes, and some people are saying that its mediocrity will probably reduce its chances of getting nominated, but I feel like this is the kind of feel-good politically correct movie that the Academy likes to go for. Have people forgotten about how a particularly average movie called The Blind Side got nominated for best picture? Hmm. I’m not an expert at analysing this kind of thing like a lot of bloggers out there (I really just follow out of curiousity and fun), and seeing as to how I have not watched ANY of the performances by the supporting actress contenders (Jennifer Lawrence, Lupita Nyong’o, Julia Roberts), I really don’t know what are Oprah and Forest Whitaker’s chances. Heh, I guess they do deserve to be nominated (I don’t know zzz), but I don’t think it is a real outrage if they get snubbed too. Buuuuut, I’m probably one of those people in the minority who are not crazy about Anne Hathaway’s Les Miserables performance last year, so…

So in my opinion, The Butler is definitely a watchable film with some really nice emotional scenes here and there. I don’t think I will ever watch it again, but I wouldn’t mind if I somehow have to. I think it’s a very educational film for children because it is so in your face with it’s  main message, which in my opinion is an important one. It’s definitely not as bad as people say despite the problems with the structure of the narration and the very weak characterizations, so I guess I’ll give it a 6.5/10. I consider myself very lenient by the way, especially when you read some of the other reviewers’ comments.

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