Saturday, January 4, 2014

"The Butler"

 2 / 5 

Like a civil-rights version of Forrest Gump, The Butler focuses on one character's journey through a cavalcade of historical figures, but lacks the innovative visual effects flair of the feel-good 1994 hokum.

Forrest Gump had visual-effects trickery to keep us entertained, but The Butler lacks that kind of hook, substituting celebrity cameos as its title character works as a quiet, noble servant during eight White House administrations.  He watches Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan (Ford and Carter are given montage lip service) struggle with civil rights issues, beginning with U.S. segregation and ending with South African apartheid.

From the start, Cecil is told to keep his mouth shut -- he's just a servant, after all, and would do well to remember the lessons he learned down on the golden-hued plantation, where his mother was raped and his father shot right before his eyes.

That's pretty powerful stuff, but The Butler feels overly sanitized, careful to express only a stately, metered anger about the way black Americans have been treated through the years.  It's neither pretty enough to be offensive or messy enough to be shocking -- it's all as carefully, mindfully scrubbed and sanitized for your protection, like a high-school textbook or a theme-park attraction.

Oddly, though the movie is called The Butler, Cecil isn't even close to the most interesting character in the movie.  If anything, his static stoicism makes him dull; the only real drama in his life is whether his bored, restless wife (Oprah Winfrey) will succumb to her increasing drug and alcohol problem, brought about by long nights waiting for Cecil to get home from the White House.

Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo) is the character who really sees the action in The Butler, but I guess The Butler's Son would have sounded too much like a sequel.  Louis enrolls at Fisk University in Tennessee just in time to take part in the Woolworth sit-in, become a Freedom Rider, travel to Selma, be part of Martin Luther King's inner circle, hear Malcom X speak, become a Black Panther, and ultimately be elected to a Congressional seat just as the anti-Apartheid movement is coming of age.  I'm not sure when the kid had any time to study, but he certainly plays a part in history.

Meanwhile, Cecil and his wife hear from Louis every so often, exactly when the current president needs some sage, on-the-sly advice from the man who's always at his right hand, pouring tea or clearing dishes.  Cecil becomes a beloved member of the White House staff, but is always perturbed that the black staff and the white staff are treated unequally, though he fails to make noise about that for thirty years or more.  I got the sense Louis would have acted up a little bit earlier.

Everything is by-the-textbook in The Butler, including the swelling, string-infused musical score, the careful camerawork and the prosthetic nose on John Cusack's face when he plays Richard Nixon.  (John Cusack as Richard Nixon?  Give the casting director extra points for imagination.)

The clothes, including Cecil's bow-tie, change to suit the decades, and as The Butler languidly moves toward the present day (you can guess everything Cecil says about Barack Obama being elected president), there's only one really dynamic moment, when Cecil finally has enough of Louis's militant Black Power antics and kicks him out of the house.  That's precisely the kind of real drama The Butler needed.

Mostly, we get to play "Guess the Actor" underneath all that crazy makeup: Is that really Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower?  How in the world did the director persuade Jane Fonda to play Nancy Reagan?  (She's quite good in the role, actually.)

The Butler will likely find a long and deserved place in middle-school American history classes.  It's a great starting point for a conversation with someone who doesn't know a lot about the civil rights movement, and it's impossible not to find blood-boiling drama in scenes of college students being pelted with coffee and ketchup as they try to get served at a restaurant counter, or to elicit a shock by showing the KKK in action or the Selma race riots.

It's just all tremendously pat and not particularly moving.  The territory has been covered much more effectively by other movies, but I give The Butler a lot of credit for trying.

Viewed January 2, 2014 -- On DVD

"August: Osage County"

 3 / 5 

August: Osage County is entertaining, compelling and only mildly disturbing, which may be its big problem.

Though I didn't see the stage version, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008, and the Pulitzer committee generally isn't one that rewards pure entertainment.  Something about the play on stage must have resonated with audiences whose families don't grapple with issues like drug abuse, incest, suicide and violent family outbursts.

The film seems more of a darkly comic sideshow, which isn't meant to sound dismissive. August: Osage County is marvelously addictive as a movie, perfect for anyone too highbrow to admit they watch Honey Boo-Boo and the Kardashians on TV at least every now and then.

Instead of actual low-class people who are making a fortune being fools on reality TV, August: Osage County gives us very rich high-class people pretending to be white trash.  It's delicious, borderline camp, fun.

Campiness probably isn't what screenwriter Tracy Letts (who still has that Pulitzer at home to ease the pain) had in mind when he adapted his play for the screen, and isn't what Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts intended to convey -- and it's to the film's credit that it stays just barely on this side of the thin line that separates Mommie Dearest from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  But it steps right up to that line, digs its toes in, and stares camp right in the face.

The movie gets going when the washed-up poet/patriarch of the Weston family decides he's finally had enough of his pill-popping, venom-spewing wife Violet.  He simply walks off one morning and doesn't come back.  The crisis spurs the whole family into action, and from Colorado, Florida and right down the Rural Route of Osage County, Violet's children all come home to help their mother through the turmoil.

The setup is one of the film's trouble spots: Why in the world would any self-respecting child return to the home of such a horrible woman, mother or not?  Of course, they're not self-respecting, and once they're gathered, they discover that their father -- quite rationally, all things considered -- has drowned himself in the river in his final attempt to get some peace and quiet.

Angry recriminations follow.  Major revelations.  Astonishing admissions.  And lots and lots of power acting, led by Streep and Roberts, both of whom are award-worthy (which, of course, was the real reason for making the film -- it's hard to believe that anyone was desperate to make this movie except as a way to mine some Oscar gold).

The actors make it all work, and it does work quite well as a homespun soap opera. Most splendid of all is Roberts, an actress who will likely never fully be able to outgrow her leading-lady roots but who brings a welcome, remarkable maturity to August: Osage County.  As Barbara Weston, the eldest of the three Weston daughters and her father's favorite (do you sense a King Lear nod here?), she anchors the movie in a semblance of reality, struggling against her own guilt for having left her parents and her fate to share more than she cares to admit with her mother's virulent, contagious contempt for the world.

Roberts imparts real weight to the role, a nice balance to the single note Streep brings to Violet.  Meryl Streep is peerless.  Meryl Streep is flawless as an actress.  But she can't quite find the human heart that could still be beating, even faintly, within this bitter, hateful woman.  She tries, and a long monologue about cowboy boots comes awfully close -- then ends with the kind of blowzy punchline that fills the movie.  It's mesmerizing to watch, but after a while the coarseness is overwhelming -- which is where Robert's antidote comes in.

The other sisters are less well-defined.   Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the one who stayed home, and her dim-wittedness almost works, until the final revelation about her romantic relationship, which is both a stunner and a letdown; the movie's not about her, so it doesn't get the payoff it deserves.  Karen (Juliette Lewis) is a bubble-headed moron who comes across as an afterthought and a caricature.

More impressive are Margo Martindale as Violet's sister and, especially, Chris Cooper as her husband, who, like most everyone else in the large cast, gets a juicy, meaty scene and plays it to the rafters.

A final scene of bitter, self-imposed isolation is, alas, undone by a ridiculous coda that delivers false, un-earned redemption and hope for one of the lead characters and, theoretically at least, for the audience.  But August: Osage County should have left us exhausted and empty, embarrassed at ourselves for finding such entertainment in despair and vitriol.  It wants us to leave feeling good about what we've just seen, even providing us Waltons-style, happy-face end credits.

There's no way to feel good about these people, or about ourselves for laughing at them.  And frankly, that's just the way Violet Weston would have preferred it.

Viewed January 3, 2014 -- On DVD