Movie Review – Lee Daniels’ The Butler; The World’s End; The Way, Way Back

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Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an entertaining, occasionally moving journey through recent American history as seen from the perspective of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who, along with his rebellious son Louis (David Oyelowo), seems to be present for many of the decisive incidents in the Civil Rights movement.

The story, narrated by an elderly Cecil, finds a young Cecil fleeing a very difficult childhood on a 1920’s cotton plantation, subsequently being sheltered and mentored by Maynard, an aging, dignified black servant (an excellent Clarence Williams III); after a number of years in which Cecil polishes his skills, Maynard recommends Cecil for a position in Washington D.C. Eventually, Cecil’s innate dignity and competence earn him a position as a White House butler, beginning with the Eisenhower administration, and lasting through the Reagan era. Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey), while initially pleased with his success, begins to resent what she perceives as Cecil’s neglect, temporarily finding solace in the bottle–and an attentive, married neighbor (Terrence Howard).

What really throws Cecil however, is the attitude of his son Louis. Far from being grateful to Cecil for all the opportunities his position brings, Louis sees Cecil as being a symbol of perpetually degrading subservience at the mercy of an oppressive government (and don’t ask Louis what he thinks of Sidney Poitier); his dissatisfaction will ultimately lead Louis into being at the forefront of the Civil Rights battle, alongside the Freedom Riders and ultimately the Black Panthers. The conflict between Cecil and Louis is the main focus of the film: Louis can’t—or won’t—see how Cecil’s excellence and dignity help to subvert racial stereotyping (even when told this by Dr. Martin Luther King), while Cecil can’t see why Louis would want to endanger himself in pursuit of his ideals.
Danny Strong’s serviceable script takes in a lot but its insistence in placing its two major characters within spitting distance of every tumultuous event in the 1950s-1970s has the effect of making this a dual Forrest Gump. The plotting is also by the numbers: when there are moments of great joy, you can see the heartbreak coming a mile away. What keeps this from being a kind of history-on-parade is the sight of some very good actors delivering exceptional performances. Cuba Gooding does his best recent work as a fellow butler, fun-loving but there in a pinch; Oprah Winfrey often reminds us what a good actress we lost when she changed her focus to becoming an enterprise; Robin Williams and Alan Rickman stand out as Eisenhower and Reagan, conveying their inner conflict when faced with a changing America. David Oyelowo is terrific as the rebellious, volatile son, but ultimately this is Forest Whitaker’s show. Whitaker is commanding as Cecil; he effortlessly embodies the man’s dignity, as well as his joy, undercurrents of resentment, and moments of extreme sorrow. His performance holds the movie together and turns it into a moving experience.

The World’s End is an enjoyable brew that reunites writer-director Edgar Wright with co-writer and star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost for the last part of a trilogy that began with Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz ( a personal favorite). This time Pegg is a perpetually adolescent alcoholic who convinces his four responsible childhood friends to return to their boyhood village and relive a failed pub crawl that was, for Pegg, the defining moment of his life. The friends (led by perennial sidekick Frost) are initially reluctant, but they decide to join Pegg. This initial concept is very winning, as the mature, outwardly satisfied but deeply discontented friends set out to recapture their youth, while coping with the limitations imposed by age, as well as the seemingly impersonal nature of their town, their fondly remembered pubs—and their inhabitants. To say more would reveal a little too much, but the movie does have the gents getting into some battles while downing more than a handful of pints. It’s all very lively and often extremely funny—although some of the fights do go on a bit too long. It’s a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

I was a little late in catching up with the charming coming-of-age story The Way, Way Back but if it’s still at a local theater, you might want to see it, as an unhappy boy (Liam James) on vacation with his divorced mother (Toni Colette) and her loutish boyfriend (Steve Carell) finds a degree of happiness and empowerment working at a waterpark under the tutelage of manager Sam Rockwell. It doesn’t exactly cover new ground, but the movie’s warmth, humor, and performances (particularly Rockwell’s as the raffish mentor) make it one of the better summer movies.