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22 Aug 2013

Mini Review: Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker Carry 'The Butler'

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Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler. Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler.

Director Lee Daniels (mentioned in the film’s title after a much-publicized lawsuit) delivers a fine emotional wallop with this historical epic that is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a butler at the White House for 34 years. Those going to this film for its historical significance, take note: The film contains much fiction.

Allen is renamed Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker), and is given a fictional older son to depict a family conflict during the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, this film, which shows the butler interacting with presidents from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) through Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), is mostly made up. That doesn’t hurt the film’s dramatic significance; it’s a moving experience. What does damage the film a bit is horrible makeup, especially a goofy fake nose for John Cusack as Richard Nixon. The makeup is sometimes so bad that the film turns into unintentional comedy when some characters are onscreen.

Still, Whitaker holds the whole thing together, and Oprah Winfrey, in her first starring role since her excellent turn in Beloved, does strong work as Cecil’s wife. Other stars playing presidents include a relatively makeup-free James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, and an absolutely covered Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is playing in theaters across the valley.

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