Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Butler (2013)

I wish to offer repentance for not posting as much lately. I’m sure this isn’t necessary seeing how my blog doesn’t garner huge views, but I contribute my hiatus to not posting with Completely Charming, the Facebook page I was on. Combining that, the fact that my History thru Film class is done, the fact that I’ve spent ¾ of my summer working, missed opportunities, and (sigh) pure laziness, I guess the creative juices haven’t had a chance to flow.

And I can’t just wing one. My self-proclaimed job is to offer you my opinions at my freshest and passionate state. I thought that I would write reviews of recent films I’ve seen in theaters, but the two I have seen (Star Trek: Into Darkness & Fast and Furious 6) ended with me not doing a review, that of which I can attribute to it slipping my mind.

Anywho, that was then. This is now. The Spectacular Now! (Nah, just kidding. Although, I do desperately want to see that film)

Let’s talk about racism…in film.

Racism is an assuredly risky subject when it comes to film. When you don’t have to delicately handle it if you’re satirizing it, you have to meticulously craft it when it comes to straightforward dramatic fare. If you don’t elicit a real visceral response out of either the audience or, internally, through the helmers, it can come across as threadbare, preachy, or humdrum. Case in point: the trailer for the upcoming film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The life of Mandela had been done innumerably in film before and the prejudicial images are as common as you’ve seen in other films or, hell, even history lessons. God, does it look stagnant!

In The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels, whose film, Precious, transcended every film in 2009 on any aspect (acting, content, story arcs, emotion, etc.), there is a scene where Louis, the son of the butler, takes part in a sit-in at a segregated restaurant. It is intercut with Louis’ college class preparing for it. The restaurant patrons, inevitably, grow restless, annoyed, and impatient. Customer scorn leads to employee insistence on segregation, which leads to violence. This scene isn’t just some flyby moment that displays commonly known aspects of racism. While I know about sit-ins, the sequence lands a good hard punch to gut, due to its enduring time length, thus allowing the themes of determination to be exuded.

What follows this moment? The Butler finds out about his son’s behavior and discourages it. It’s not the generic film concept of demand for freedom exceeds anything else. Contrarily, it actually makes an articulate, shrewd thematic argument on both sides of the issue. This is one of the rare moments of the movie that is not a scene, more a breath of fresh air.

The opening of the film takes us to Mason, Georgia. Cecil Gaines (The Butler) was born into slavery. After his father gets shot in the cotton field by the plantation owner, the estate’s caretaker takes him under her wing and teaches him the ropes of becoming a servant. He soon leaves Georgia and heads for North Carolina. After breaking into a pastry shop and getting caught by the owner, he teaches him how to be a butler, a craft takes him all the way to Washington D.C.

The film is skillful on a visual level. The film molds great luscious retro motif, which can be contributed to the evocative camerawork and lighting. Arguably, Lee Daniels’ primary forte is in the field of all-star casting. This year, Daniels has assembled the most celebrated, far-flung, and dexterous cast of the year. Along with Lee Daniels alumni, Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey (who has no dialogue and yet emits a lyrical, pensive performance), Forest Whitaker plays the butler with cogency and confidence. Other cast members include Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, YaYa DaCosta, Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley from Hairspray (another film that relates to racism. Ironic), rapper David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robin Williams, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda; a serviceable cast, if not transcendent. I don’t predict any Oscar buzz for any of them, but they definitely play the parts and play them very well.

However, the expansive cast is part of the problem with the film. It’s not the actors, it’s the film itself and the fact that the film is so hell-bent on the focal point: the butler. The film is much like the butler itself: it provides you with the goods and nothing more. It has such a airplane-like pace. It follows its objective, which is to show the butler as much as possible, and neglects any major stops. This prevents the film to obtain any tangible momentum or any meaty character development. In terms of the characters outside of the butler and the presidents, the film acknowledges their presences, but doesn’t assert their caricature completions.

The theme of the film revolves around itself. It is about the butler and, more than a few times, gets trapped on that theme and just gets caught in a circle. This is dreary because the butler doesn’t have much of an arc. He doesn’t have to overcome any particular obstacles. He’s just the butler. He does offer the occasional consolation, but he just acts as a butler. While some may argue that this augments the film because it may be argued that the butler can’t do more than his role given the racism during that time, he never provides us with any nuances to make that case.

This, for the most part, affects the film emotionally, too. Most emotional moments just never seem to resonate. It sort of enters the psyche, resides there temporarily, and vanishes. I couldn’t emotional invest with the romantic subplot involving Louis and his girlfriend because the plotline is just limp and disposable. The film almost wants to handle it uniquely, but in doing this, it basically doesn’t acknowledge its romanticism, if any. The plotline is basically dropped later on.

However, one part of that stanza above should be underlined: for the most part. The film finds potent eloquence in the relationship between the butler and his son, Louis. The film finds extreme pathos and complexities in this interaction. The way it unfolds, crumbles, and, eventually, how it ends is extremely touching. Also, the coda is extremely competent in how it amalgamates the context of the film, the historical context of the past, and the context of the now and still strikes an outstanding relevance.

 The film is 2 hours and 12 minutes, but I can say with no hyperbole that this is probably the most rushed 2 hour+ film of the year. But Lee Daniels, I will forgive and forget. He takes his central achievement, takes away the raw power and searing, unabashed emotion, preserves the other benefits, and simultaneously expands and subdues his new film. It doesn’t make for his most masterful film, but it makes for his most accessible one. And for Lee Daniels, that’s just fine with me.

RATING: Three out of four stars

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