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updated: 8/15/2013 2:31 PM

Well-meaning 'Butler' doesn't do it

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  • Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and her husband, Cecil (Forest Whitaker), move to Washington, D.C., when he gets a job as a White House staffer in the historical drama "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

      Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and her husband, Cecil (Forest Whitaker), move to Washington, D.C., when he gets a job as a White House staffer in the historical drama "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

  • Video: "The Butler" trailer

 
 

The Civil Rights Movement figures so prominently in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" that it practically becomes the star of this inspired -- if less than inspiring -- historical drama.

Forest Whitaker's Cecil Gaines, the titular butler, serves as witness to America's great grapple with institutionalized racism, beginning in a cotton field during the 1920s through the election of the nation's first black president.

I appreciated this drama, directed by Lee "Precious" Daniels (as if you didn't know), for its enticing mixture of stirring emotion and cheap sentiment, for its epic reach and its made-for-cable grasp, for its oh-so-serious sincerity and rousing music.

But not for its casting.

When Robin Williams invades the movie as President Dwight D. Eisenhower with whitened hair I thought -- just for a fleeting moment -- "The Butler" had become a "Saturday Night Live" parody skit.

I half-expected Williams, his eyes twinkling with restrained glee, to shout "Live, from New York!" at any moment.

Granted, I may be the only person who reacted this way, but it was an honest, unexpected reaction. Once Williams flipped my tickle switch, I was a goner.

Next up: Evanston's John Cusack slithers in the movie as an overtly shifty Richard M. Nixon, emanating the aura of a snake-oil salesman. Is this serious?

Yes, it is. And that realization tickled me even more when Jane Fonda -- the ultra-leftist "Hanoi Jane" from the Vietnam War era -- popped in as First Lady Nancy Reagan, the poster girl for Republican conservatism.

Surely, this is a joke.

No. The actors played their roles with sincere conviction, especially Liev Schreiber going full-Texas on us as Lyndon Johnson.

It's just that using such famous, identifiable performers heavily made up to resemble historical figures created a ... OMG! Is that Snape playing President Ronald Reagan? Snape?

It is! Alan Rickman, looking like an escapee from Madame Tussaud's Presidential Wax Museum, plays the 40th president with embalmed affection and teenager's hair.

Clearly, Daniels and his fellow filmmakers intended "The Butler" to be a moving examination of how much -- or how little -- America has progressed on racial issues during the 20th century. And who wouldn't want powerhouse stars to fill in the ranks of the supporting characters?

Yet, "The Butler" would have been better served by lesser-known cast members carting less baggage into these iconic historical figures.

For the record, Cecil Gaines is not one.

"The Butler" has been "inspired by" real events, Hollywood's code for "don't mistake this for anything close to a documentary."

Danny "Recount" Strong's screenplay dramatically reworks a Washington Post article about White House maitre d' Eugene Allen, loosely adapting him into Gaines, a sympathetically stoic survivor of the South who serves seven presidents during his lengthy White House tenure.

"The Butler" begins like a Tarantino-esque exploitation movie when Gaines, as a young boy (Michael Rainey Jr.), works at a cotton plantation with his parents. The white owner's son (Alex Pettyfer) one afternoon rapes his mother, then casually shoots his father to death for daring to register an objection.

Just another day in 1920s Georgia.

Out of pity or guilt, the owner's wife (Vanessa Redgrave) plucks little Cecil from the cotton fields and turns him into a house servant, teaching him the fine art of anticipating and fulfilling white people's needs and wants. She shares the secret of success: to be everywhere, and yet, completely invisible at all times.

Whitaker takes over the role of Gaines as a young man, and his low-vibe performance nails the essence of a quiet survivor who sucks up a lot of resentment, pride and hopes to become one of the most respected and well-liked figures to ever serve on the White House staff.

Chicago's Oprah Winfrey, marking her first movie role since 1998's "Beloved," makes the most of her supporting part as Gaines' wife, Gloria, a woefully underwritten character injected with Winfrey-grade authenticity as she evolves from poverty into a comfortable middle-class existence.

Exactly the existence that her son, Louis (David Oyelowo), rejects during the 1960s when he opts to join the Black Panthers to fight the discrimination of a racially divided nation.

Oyelowo proves to be this movie's singular lightning rod, a performance that erupts from the actor's soul and whisks Louis through the years with power and grace.

Thankfully, Daniels' didn't cast Chris Rock.

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