Movie review: 'The Butler' is a great story, but can be a little drawn out

Movie review: 'The Butler' is a great story, but can be a little drawn out
This film image released by The Weinstein Company shows Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, left, and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from "Lee Daniels' The Butler." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Anne Marie Fox)

I was just a bit late to the start of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” but I was just in time to see the pivotal scene at the beginning of the film. It takes place in the cotton fields of Georgia where a young Cecil Gaines is working with his father. An incident takes place, and the lady of the house (Vanessa Redgrave) takes Cecil in and begins to train him as a “house n-----.” Yes, be prepared, the “n” word is used several times in this film.

This is one man’s story of a climb into work at the White House. But it’s director Lee Daniels’ casting choices and vision of history that people will be talking about. The story is based on the real life of Eugene Wells, who served eight presidents as a butler in the White House, and lived long enough to cast a vote for President Obama.

It’s a great story, but this “riff,” told with historical embellishments to carry it along, is a little drawn out at times. Instead of the interesting biography it could have been, it turns into more of tale of the fight for civil rights. While I don’t have any sort of problem with using the struggle for civil rights as part of the story, I feel like it should have been more in the background. Many of the characters are lost as that becomes the focus of the film and not “the butler” himself.

It also becomes a bit of a “who’s next” in the cavalcade of stars filling parts like Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to JFK (James Marsden) and Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda). Everyone does a great job, but some are a little odd and others just a distraction.

If you haven’t already heard, Oprah is back on the big screen here as Cecil Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) wife, Gloria. She does a great job in certain scenes, but overall, we only see her out of the house once. Her main focus seems to be her potato salad. She has some great “outbursts,” but in the end becomes sort of underused; a shame.

Forest Whitaker is solid as always, but still I feel there could have been more character development for him, too. His voiceover narration is fine to move the story along, but only gives us a tiny bit of insight toward the end of the film.

Overall, I would recommend seeing the film, there will be talk of it at OSCAR time, but is it a “Best Picture?” That’s up to you to decide. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is rated “PG-13.”