Occasionally moving, sweeping in ambition yet often haphazard in execution, Lee Daniels' The Butler is an epic that more closely resembles a made-for-TV movie or miniseries, albeit one from the high-minded 1970s heyday of TV movies. Think Backstairs at the White House, if your memory goes that far back.
Covering more than 80 years of U.S. history through the eyes of a White House butler and his family — decades of strife and conflict, from segregation to the election of Barack Obama to the presidency — The Butler features Oscar winner Forest Whitaker in the title role; Oscar nominee Oprah Winfrey; and Oscar winners Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Redgrave. Daniels, the director of Precious, is like catnip to actors.
We follow a sharecropper's son who saw his father murdered by a white landowner in 1920s Georgia, a boy raised to know service who ends up at the White House just as Dwight D. Eisenhower (Williams) is deciding to send troops into Little Rock to integrate the schools.
No matter how careful the instructions from his peers (Gooding, Lenny Kravitz) about how he should "never listen or react to conversations," Cecil hears all and sees all. Every now and then, Kennedy (James Marsden, a dead ringer for Bobby, too short for Jack), Nixon (John Cusack) or Reagan (Alan Rickman, the most presidential of the lot) will actually ask his opinion, being the handiest black voter known to the seven presidents whom Cecil served.
Meanwhile, at home, Cecil's wife, Gloria (Winfrey), drinks and tries to raise their two sons in the absence of a husband who lets his job come first.
"I don't care what goes on in that house," she grouses. "I care what goes on in this house."
And well she should, because their college-bound son (David Oyelowo) is traveling through the '60s and '70s like a black Forrest Gump — jailed as a Freedom Rider, fan of Malcolm X, a man in the hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr. just before his murder, and later a Black Panther.
The strains of the times play out in pop-music montages, news footage of assassinations and riots, and Walter Cronkite detailing the horrors of the Vietnam War and annoyances of gas rationing.
But as a movie, Lee Daniels' The Butler — the title was the subject of Hollywood arbitration — is as ungainly as the its name. It's a maddeningly spotty exercise, covering too much too quickly, with clunky, pointless narration and soap opera-ish melodrama taking attention from the sweep of history.
Daniels is at a loss to get all the history and adequate screen time for that embarrassment of acting riches. The director of the atrocious Paper Boy also neglected to get convincing impersonations from some of the actors playing these famous public figures. Liev Schreiber is a swaggering LBJ but suggests no hint of a Texas accent; Williams has little of Eisenhower's commanding presence. But Cusack gets Nixon's shifty-eyed desperation to be liked like Ike just right.
All that said, though, there are heartfelt moments that remind us why this "inspired by a true story" story seemed moving enough to film. All this really did happen over the course of the life of one man (the real butler's name was Eugene Allen), from lynchings and the murder of civil rights activists to black president.
Whitaker's stillness and dignity anchor the picture, and he lifts Winfrey's game in their scenes.
But the patchwork story and pacing rob The Butler of the wit and heart that might have made it a companion piece to the far simpler and more powerful The Help. Daniels settles for a preachy American history version of Downton Abbey.
'Lee Daniels' The Butler'
PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. Weinstein Co. 2:12. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Kentucky, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.