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Lee Daniels’ The Butler **

Is it worth $10? No

There’s a reason dramas often focus on doers who make things happen. These people are interesting, fascinating and inspiring. Less notable are those who do nothing, who stand in the background while the world and life passes them by. They have no drama and therefore no conflict, which means it’s a mistake for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” to focus on a man whose primarily responsibility was to serve others without being noticed.

Granted, the job of a White House butler puts him in a plum locale to witness important historical events. But even these glimpses into history are over far too quickly, leaving Cecil Gaines’ (Forrest Whitaker) reactions to them, though heartfelt, to feel scant and unfulfilling. He’s a fly on the wall for the most important events of the latter half of the 20th century and he has nothing to show for it but his memories, which are valuable to him and meaningless to us.

More compelling is Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), who grows up to be a freedom rider and Black Panther. While his father urges him to be content with the status quo and avoid confrontation, Louis fights for equal rights. A battle of wills ensues between the two, with their wife/mother (Oprah Winfrey) caught in the middle. Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) is also caught as he struggles to find balance between the two storylines.

The film was inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served By This Election,” and a quick read of that and other related articles suggests most of what we see in the movie is fiction. In real life the butler’s name was Eugene Allen, and (as in the film) Nancy Reagan did indeed invite Allen and his wife to a state dinner at the White House. Other than that, almost all of what we see is Hollywood invention, which cheapens the authenticity of a story allegedly rooted in American history.

That said, it is enjoyable to see how Hollywood reinvents history. Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave and Mariah Carey (in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo) open the film with a young Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) on a cotton plantation in 1926 Georgia. Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz play Cecil’s friends/co-workers. Robin Williams is President Eisenhower, James Marsden is President Kennedy, Minka Kelly is Jackie Kennedy, Liev Schreiber is President Johnson, John Cusack is President Nixon, Alan Rickman is President Reagan and Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan. If nothing else, the movie doesn’t lack for star power.

But discerning, smart moviegoers also shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this is quality storytelling just because of big names and maudlin melodrama. There’s plenty that happens to Cecil both professionally and in his personal life, but little is his own doing: He initiates only when absolutely necessary, and even then reluctantly. He’s a wallflower, and even though he has a cool job he is not remotely interesting.

Given the scope of “Lee Daniels The Butler,” the 132-minute running time and the power of The Weinstein Company (“The Artist”) behind it, there’s no doubt the film is positioned to strike now, go away for a while and then pique in popularity when it’s (probably) released on home video around Christmas. This puts it in prime position for the Oscar race. Here’s the flaw with that plan: The movie isn’t very good.

Did you know?
The reason the title is “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” rather than “The Butler” (as it was intended to be called) is because the petty, ridiculous execs at Warner Bros. claimed they control the rights to the title due to them owning a 1916 silent comedy short called, yes, “The Butler.” In July the MPAA – after originally ruling that the word “butler” couldn’t be used – agreed to let The Weinstein Company use “butler” in the title.

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