The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

January Home Video Wrap-up, Part 2

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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I was not looking forward to seeing this film. I have a well-established allergy to films designed to win Oscars, and this one had all the Weinstein fingerprints that seemed to indicate the worst kind of Hollywood awards baiting. The trailers were especially egregious in this manner, with swelling strings and “based on a true story” claims and pointed stunt casting. Additionally, despite Daniels’ recent awards success of Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, he isn’t exactly considered to be a prestige director, and has had a tendency to be a bit on the heavy handed side of the spectrum, as was proven by The Paperboy (proving that he can, in fact, make films that have normal names with normal lengths). There were positives to be seen, mostly involving Forest Whitaker, one of the great actors of the aging generation. From a perception perspective, the negatives looked to outweigh the positives.

In practice, though, it’s honestly not all that bad. It’s not all that good either, mind you, but I found myself surprised by how effective large portions of Lee Daniels’ The Butler turned out to be. The plot follows Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), a man born on a cotton farm before entering the service industry as a young adult and eventually becoming a butler at the White House. Cecil and his relationship with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) represents the dominant storyline, as well as providing for the aforementioned stunt casting, as each President from Eisenhower through Reagan is played in an outsized manner by some famous personalities. For the most part, the casting choices are a distractions, but don’t necessarily get in the way of the film except in one specific case (more on that later).

There is a secondary storyline (if you can call it secondary) involving Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) and what essentially represents the sum total of civil rights history in America from the 50’s through the present day. Louis becomes politically active shortly after Cecil begins working at the White House, and manages to insert himself into nearly every major black civil rights movement in the modern history of the US, save for sitting next to Rosa Parks on the bus. He rides the freedom bus, participates in sit-ins and protests at local businesses and joins the Black Panthers. All of these moments radicalize him in the eyes of Cecil, and Cecil’s subservience in the service industry marginalizes him in the eyes of Louis. The conceit is a strong one in theory, creating a parallel between Louis’ actions and Cecil’s seeing how they reflect on the President in power.

When you consider all of this together, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an ambitious film. Indeed, most of its failings are directly caused by its ambition. The Louis character is the biggest example of this; while Oyelowo is a strong presence on screen, he is essentially a combination of a living plot contrivance and a walking, talking civil rights textbook. Most of the moments that stand out as particularly cringey are likely to involve Louis doing something blatantly civil rights based, like having a very plotty conversation with Martin Luther King Jr, or magically showing up at Cecil’s house in full Black Panther garb. The simple act of being a revolutionary isn’t enough to make Louis feel like an actual human character with motivations and practical emotions.

Additionally, none of the gimmicky Presidents are actually good. Some are passable (James Marsden’s JFK) and some are pretty unfortunate (Robin Williams as Eisenhower/Liev Schreiber as LBJ), but one specific choice is actively disastrous. I will concede that Alan Rickman done up in all of his hair and makeup looks the part, but that’s about as far as it gets. His accent work is confused and his mannerisms feel all wrong. The suspension of disbelief is bent by some of the other characters, but with Reagan it breaks in half.

The strong performances of Whitaker, Winfrey and Oyelowo keep the film afloat through all of its indulgences and contrivances. In truth, there is just too much stuffed into Lee Daniels’ The Butler for it to ever really work on its own merits. I have a feeling that a Forest Whitaker led television show or miniseries about this character and his family (one that would have given more time and energy into developing the Louis character organically) could have been a much more effective portrait of civil rights in our era.


…In a World

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Lake Bell’s directorial debut is a comedic look at the world of voice over actors, particularly those who specialize in narrating trailers. Taking its impetus from the real-life death of Don LaFontaine, the most famous of movie trailer voice over artist (and the progenitor of the “In a world” tagline from which the film gets its name), …In a World follows Carol (Bell) as she tries to become the first woman to break into the insular movie trailer narration industry. She gets her inspiration from her father, Sam (Fred Melamed), a mostly retired veteran of the industry, and finds her foil in hotshot rival Gustav (Ken Marino) as the three of them vie for a role that will revitalize the titular phrase.

Bell is well-connected in the comedy world (a foundational role in Childrens Hospital certainly helps in that matter), and a cornucopia of comedians is on board to fill out the supporting cast. From her sister (Michaela Watkins, who had an underrated run on Saturday Night Live) and her husband (Rob Corddry) to Marino to Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro, Bell has plenty of ammunition with which to make the laughs flow. Bell’s comedy style plays into these strengths, and …In a World features the sort of comedy you’d likely expect given the cast. Dry, droll wit mixed in with the occasional absurdist non sequitur is the ruler of the day. For the most part, the film succeeds in generating its laughs, and creating an easygoing atmosphere.

Once the plot gets going and the competition for voicing The Amazon Games (they’re not particularly interested in concealing the Hunger Games reference) begins to twist and turn, Bell does her best job incorporating the standard expectations of a film like this without rolling over into cliché for the sake of cliché. There are moments you would expect, the dramatic irony of a character masquerading as someone she is not until her mark catches up on what’s really going on, or the brushes at infidelity that serve to temporarily ruin a couple’s relationship, or the contentious ideological war between father and daughter. It’s all there, but the beats do grow organically out of the story as presented. Bell’s script gives us the beats we expect, but she’s not simply copying them out of some screenwriting 101 textbook. She approaches it with wit and intelligence.

The one aspect of the film that is slightly underdrawn is the two major male antagonists. While both Marino and Melamed are given plenty of silly situations and jokes to play out, and are generally quite good at what the script wants them to do, there isn’t much character beyond a sort of generic male chauvinism. Normally, this might not be the worst problem for a comedy to have, but it wreaks a minor bit of havoc with …In a World’s more feminist leanings. As a story about a woman trying to break through the glass ceiling of a male-dominated industry (the very concept of a woman reciting the “In a world” line is anathema to just about everyone Carol meets), it doesn’t help that the males oppressing her are the broad sketches that they seem to be. It’s a minor quibble, as many of the feminist aspects of the picture still work just fine, but could have been better with more fleshed out antagonists off which for her to play.

…In a World is a promising first directorial effort for Lake Bell, and while it may not be trying for anything overwhelmingly original or groundbreaking, sometimes you just need a fun, charming movie to enjoy from time to time, and this film is a more than worthy option in that case.