Let's get the comparisons between "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump" out of the way. If you liked the 1994 film, a nostalgic fantasy for baby boomers, you will probably enjoy "The Butler."
"The Butler" is not about a holy fool but a real person, Eugene Allen, a black Southerner who served -- literally -- in the White House from 1952 to 1986, a stretch marked by racial violence, assassinations and the Vietnam War. The fictionalized Allen (he died in 2010), here named Cecil Gaines and played with vast inner strength by Forest Whitaker, is a man who faces hard choices that never really troubled the white Forrest. That makes "The Butler" a more authentic-feeling film, even if its Gumptious sentiment and pat storytelling undermine its good intentions.
Written by Danny Strong, springboarding from a 2008 Washington Post profile on Allen, "The Butler" finds its deepest truths in fiction. Cecil's son, David (an invented character played by a simmering David Oyelowo), is the opposite of his father -- a passionate participant in the Civil Rights era. David's lunch-counter sit-ins, contrasted with Cecil's mannered table-setting for wealthy whites (the sharp editing is by Joe Klotz), can be electrifying, and they provide thematic meat for the rest of the film.
Director Lee Daniels ("Precious") also visually highlights Cecil's two Americas. The corridors of power are cool, clean and symmetrical, while the humble homes of Cecil and his co-workers (Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr., both sparkling) have a dingy-yellow warmth. Oprah Winfrey, in her first major role in years as Gloria, Cecil's alcoholic wife, brings focus to a somewhat blurry character.
But the movie is marred by too many simplistic notions. The American presidents are mostly op-ed cartoons -- John Cusack's loutish Nixon, Liev Schreiber's hard-charging LBJ -- and they have an annoying habit of begging Cecil for major policy advice. One glaring omission is Jimmy Carter, who as a white Southerner of roughly Cecil's generation might have made for fascinating, if fictional, dialogue. (Perhaps Carter, the film's only living president that he served, wasn't game for poetic license.) Barack Obama, mentioned but not depicted, provides the film's thematic coda.
"The Butler" is often so good and so powerful (Rodrigo Leão's aching score helps) that the pat moments feel even more disappointing. It's another eyewitness-to-history movie that wraps America's messy past in a too-tidy package.
PLOT A black butler who serves the White House from the 1950s through the '80s bears witness to American history.
RATING PG-13 (race-themed violence and language)
CAST Forest Whitaker, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey
BOTTOM LINE Strong work from the three stars as a family splintered by Civil Rights-era tensions, but the film too often resorts to easy sentiment and simple caricatures.
BUSTING THEIR BUTTS AS MOVIE BUTLERS
Who says you can't find good help these days? "Lee Daniels' The Butler," opening today, seems well-served with Forest Whitaker in the title role of a White House servant. Here are four other actors who had a talent for minding their masters' manors.
MY MAN GODFREY (1936). William Powell had been divorced from Carole Lombard for three years, but insisted on her as his co-star in this Depression-era comedy about a scatterbrained heiress who hires a "forgotten man" as her family's butler.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). As Max, manservant to faded film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Erich von Stroheim may have been the creepiest butler to grace the screen until Lurch (Carel Struycken) in the "Addams Family" movies.
ARTHUR (1981). John Gielgud turned down the role of Hobson, acid-tongued butler to Dudley Moore's party-hearty drunk, several times because he thought the script was "rather smutty, rather common." He finally accepted and won an Oscar.
BATMAN (1989). Has there ever been a more loyal servant than Alfred, butler to Bruce Wayne (aka Batman)? Michael Gough played the role in the first "Batman" movie and its three follow-ups. Michael Caine took it over in 2005's "Batman Begins."
-- Daniel Bubbeo