Any movie that casts Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan certainly has a piquant sense of humor, but the prankishness of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — so named after a title dispute with the MPAA — undermines the serious statements this star-spangled film is striving to make about race, class and politics. Along with missing the movie’s ever-migrating point, viewers may be forgiven for wondering whether “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” might have been titled “Lee Daniels’ Forrest Gump” — its hero challenged morally rather than mentally, but watching history in Gumpian fashion, as a series of cameos viewed through a slightly clueless daze.
Inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents during his tenure as a White House domestic and who was the subject of a 2008 Washington Post profile by Wil Haygood, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who grows up amid Southern cotton fields, witnesses the systematic abuse of his parents (Mariah Carey, David Banner) and learns that one goes along to get along. Cecil spends the movie carrying Jim Crow on his back and fear in his eye; that he personifies, both metaphorically and actually, the “good Negro” of the American Racist Dream is never much of a question. But even as Cecil lives his life slightly adjacent to history, building a heroic film around him requires herculean effort.
Daniels certainly tries. The director of “Precious” (2009) and last year’s gleefully awful “The Paperboy,” Daniels trails Cecil through his near-slave childhood, a civil rights movement that impassions one son (David Oyelowo), a Vietnam War that draws in another (Elijah Kelley) and an election that results in the first African American president.
What the film never settles on is a point of view: Is the subservience that makes Cecil a success as a butler (“You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve,” he’s told early on at the White House) something to be admired or decried? Is Cecil someone, as a character in the film points out, who by virtue of being hardworking and trustworthy defies racial stereotypes and advances his people? No, his powerlessness, ultimately, is something shameful.
But even as Daniels strains to emphasize the impotence Cecil feels, as he watches cavalier decisions about black men being made by white men, the director can’t resist the commercial impulse to make Cecil a hero. And you can’t quite have it both ways without making a movie with a personality disorder.
On “Precious,” Daniels was working from an Oscar-winning script by Geoffrey Fletcher, but here he has a rather pedestrian screenplay by Danny Strong, who scripted the TV movies “Recount,” about the 2000 election, and “Game Change,” about the 2008 election. “It’s his world, we’re just living in it,” Cecil’s father tells the boy (really?). In an exchange with his own son, Louis (Oyelowo), whose Black Pantherism is yanking dad’s chain, Cecil actually says, “I brought you into this world and I can send you out of it” — a line usually ascribed to Bill Cosby, who does not appear among the credits.
In addition to a standout performance by Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s likably edgy, sometimes boozy wife, there are several moments of cagey insight. One involves Cecil, pre-White House, working at Washington’s Excelsior Hotel and suffering through a customer’s virulently racist rant about school desegregation. “Never in my life,” Cecil says on voiceover, “did I dream I’d work in a place as fancy as this.” There’s no irony to the statement, just compartmentalization and denial. And it’s a moment that really stings.
Cecil’s overlords — those eight presidents under whom he serves — include Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), whom Cecil expects to help his people and doesn’t; John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), who does, despite being a few inches shorter than we remember; John Cusack’s Richard M. Nixon, who, during some Watergate moments, looks less like the late president than he does Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil”; and Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan, who looks right but sounds wrong.
The aforementioned Fonda is pretty much on point, but overall there’s very little effort made to transform actors physically or audibly into the people they’re supposed to be impersonating. Liev Schreiber isn’t short, for instance, but neither is he tall enough for Lyndon B. Johnson, and his Texas accent sounds like it might have originated at the southern end of Central Park. It’s all stunt casting, intended for cheap, quick laughs, and doesn’t help a movie whose campaign already lacks a certain focus.
Anderson is a freelance film critic in New York.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence and disturbing images, strong language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.