On the surface, framing the tumultuous civil rights era around the personal drama of a black butler working inside the White House might seem hokey. Folding history lessons in an entertaining package has always proven a difficult balancing act. But Lee Daniels' The Butler stands as a testament to reserved directing, a focused script and strong character-acting for the sake of the larger picture outside the movie house.
The heart and soul of the piece resides firmly in the capable hands of Forest Whitaker who, as titular character Cecil Gaines, balances pathos, pride, and strength with a human dash of regret. The other characters all seem to pass through his life but leave bold marks on him and the film's drama. Oprah Winfrey as Ms. Gloria Gaines, Terrence Howard as the sleazy philandering neighbor who takes advantage of the lonely Gloria, and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House help stand out the strongest for their raw abilities to inhabit their roles.
Though you would expect such actors to hold their own, the real delight of the Butler comes from the fact that there are no shortcomings in the film's supporting roles. The dynamic between the brothers of Cecil and Gloria offers a delightful comic relief, which is peppered amongst the drama just enough to keep the struggles of those times bearable. Elijah Kelley delights as the younger, naïve, parent-pleasing Charlie, and David Oyelowo embodies ultra-righteousness as Louis, jumping at every opportunity of civil disobedience to fight for his people's human rights (from protesting Jim Crow laws in the South to joining the Black Panther party). Meanwhile, the presidents — despite being played by high profile actors like Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), Alan Rickman (Reagan), and an unforgettable Jane Fonda as Nancy — never hang around the drama long enough to distract from its main concern of a black man struggling with apathy as the times change around him.
No character ever overshadows Cecil, who encapsulates an array of issues, from escaping an oppressive life on a cotton farm as a child to arriving at a revelation stemming from a simple gesture by taking a seat at a fancy dinner in his twilight years. It's this quiet struggle of a man trying to get by in a rough and tumble world that remains the film's main concern. The 52-year-old Whitaker does a noble job as he ages from a young man to a 90-year-old.
Compared to Daniels' powerful breakout Precious (2009) and the horrible, dull mess of the Paperboy (2012), the film features a reserved sensibility thanks to the director's decision to turn down the histrionics for a change. Throughout his short filmmaking career, Daniels has always shown a keen control over camera placement to keep a film visually dynamic, despite some dramatic failings. The Butler is no exception, as Daniels' artistry appears in the film's first frame. He still, however, leans on slow motion during a few scenes for overkill emphasis. He doesn't need that. His greatest accomplishment in The Butler lies in how he keeps the other characters in check against the quiet but important struggles of Cecil. Despite the film's many stars, no one is distracted as Daniels reveals a strong sense of mise-en-scène when burying the cast's celebrity. Daniels also continues to do raw well with make-up and wardrobe dialed down to keep it real and earthy.
The script deserves singling out as the glue that makes The Butler work as neatly as it does. Written by Danny Strong, the scribe behind another brisk political drama, the acclaimed McCain-Palin exposé Game Change on HBO, it makes for an engaging, well-paced affair despite running over two hours long. Strong based his script on a Washington Post article about a black man who served as a butler to eight presidents between the '50s and '80s. In order to emphasize the history and the tension of the civil rights movement on this family who happened to have close ties to the White House, Strong took liberties with the story. He created composite characters based on other memoirs with intimate access to the White House. It's a matter of convenience to place some of these characters at three or four too many important historical moments that may seem contrived to some. However, I'd forgive the film for teetering close to Forrest Gump cartoonery for the sake of its emphasis on moments in history that can too easily be forgotten as generations pass.
After the Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, The Butler serves as an important role in reminding us that equality and malaise between ethnic groups and classes still festers in this era, even after the election of the first black president. We need a movie that looks back at history and offers a reminder about the long way America has come and the long way it still has to go. That The Butler can do it while remaining entertaining is a bonus many will appreciate.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos| Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com
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American Pie 2 enjoyed the weekend's sweetest slice of box office pie.
Universal launched its R rated youth appeal comedy sequel Pie 2 in first place to a record setting ESTIMATED $45.1 million at 3,063 theaters ($14,724 per theater).
Pie 2's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by J.B. Rogers, it stars Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Seann William Scott, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Eugene Levy.
"The first one opened to $18.7 million," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning, referring to the original American Pie, which after its July 9, 1999 launch went on to gross $102.7 million in domestic theaters.
Now with the sequel's blockbuster opening, Rocco said, "With Friday's business, Universal became the number one (distributor in terms of domestic) market share for the year. We've been number one for the summer. We became number one for the year. We're well over $600 million in domestic box office grosses as of now."
Rocco also pointed to a number of records set by Pie 2: "This picture is the biggest R rated comedy. It's the second highest opening for an R rated film ever, just behind our own Hannibal (in which Universal was partnered with MGM). It's the third biggest comedy ever (of any type), not just R rated. It's the fourth movie that Universal has opened consecutively to over $40 million. Our records show that no other studio has done that twice in a row. And it's the fourth number one movie in a row for Universal."
Universal's outstanding success this year includes its first place openings of The Mummy Returns the weekend of May 4-6 to $68.1 million, The Fast and the Furious the weekend of June 22-24 to $40.1 million, Jurassic Park III the weekend of July 20-22 to $50.8 million (and a five day cume of $81.4 million) and now Pie 2 with an ESTIMATED $45.1 million.
Focusing on the sequel's profitability, Rocco observed, "It made back more than its production cost, which was $30 million."
All told, she added, "I'm delighted with the results of this picture. This is our own home grown franchise and it's so exciting that audiences were anxious to revisit characters that they fell in love with for the first time."
Rocco said that the studio's exit polls for Pie 2 were outstanding, showing that its audience was 53 percent female and 47 percent male. "67 percent of the audience was under the age of 25, as expected," she said. "For that core audience, the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) scored 94 percent. Overall, it scored 90 percent in the Top Two Boxes. For the core audience, the definite recommend was 73 percent against a norm of 50 percent. Overall, the definite recommend was 69 percent, which is fabulous."
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated action comedy blockbuster sequel Rush Hour 2 dropped one rung to second place in its second week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $31.48 million (-53%) at 3,118 theaters ($10,095 per theater). Its cume is approximately $131.9 million, heading for $175-200 million.
Directed by Brett Ratner, it stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
Buena Vista/Disney's G rated family comedy The Princess Diaries held on to third place in its second week with a still royal ESTIMATED $14.1 million (-38%) at 2,706 theaters (+169 theaters; $5,211 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.9 million, heading for $85-100 million.
Directed by Garry Marshall, it stars Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway.
Dimension Films' opened its PG-13 thriller The Others in fourth place to a promising ESTIMATED $13.67 million at 1,678 theaters ($8,147 per theater).
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, it stars Nicole Kidman.
"We'll be in profit by the end of the week on this one. It was made for $17 million all-in," Miramax L.A. president Mark Gill said Sunday morning. "Cruise/Wagner did a brilliant job creatively and economically. I think Nicole Kidman becomes a serious Oscar contender after the great reviews she got. So we're excited about that."
Asked about Kidman's prospects as an awards contender, Gill added, "She's just gotten astonishingly great reviews, so I think there's almost no doubt she'll be a serious Oscar contender."
Given the film's strong opening, Gill said, "We're on about a thousand screens less than everybody else, so we'll about 500 more this coming week. At $8,147 a screen, (exhibitors) will be ringing our phones (asking for prints of The Others)."
Did all the media attention Kidman's been getting as the result of her divorce from Tom Cruise hurt or help the film's opening? "There's no doubt that publicity gets attention," Gill replied. "But the key to this, of course, is you can all the attention in the world, but if people don't like what they're seeing they don't go. So the movie had to deliver and the advertising had to look like it was presenting a good movie. Mercifully, all that was true.
"The movie is fantastic. It reminds me a lot of Hitchcock movies. But, you know, pick your favorite influence. It's more psychological than it is anything else. As a consequence, it's, I think, better and scarier not to rely on blood and gore. It gets you there in other ways. The Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar brought a ton of style to it. It's a really great movie."
20th Century Fox's PG-13 sci-fi action adventure Planet of the Apes fell three pegs to fifth place in its third week with a quieter ESTIMATED $13.32 million (-52%) at 3,405 theaters (-125 theaters; $3,910 per theater). Its cume is approximately $148.7 million, heading for $175-180 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Tim Burton and produced by Richard D. Zanuck, it stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Universal and Amblin Entertainment's PG-13 rated action adventure fantasy sequel Jurassic Park III slipped two notches to sixth place in its fourth week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-41%) at 3,175 theaters (-287 theaters; $2,299 per theater). Its cume is approximately $160.2 million, heading for $175 million or more in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joe Johnston, JP III stars Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, John Diehl and Bruce A. Young.
Warner Bros.' PG rated comedy Osmosis Jones kicked off in seventh place to a calm ESTIMATED $5.58 million at 2,305 theaters ($2,419 per theater).
Directed by Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly, it stars Chris Rock, Laurence Fishburne, David Hyde Pierce, Brandy Norwood, William Shatner, Molly Shannon, Chris Elliott and Bill Murray.
Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures' PG-13 rated romantic comedy America's Sweethearts slid three slots to eighth place in its fourth week with a less romantic ESTIMATED $4.6 million (-43%) at 2,686 theaters (-325 theaters; $1,713 per theater). Its cume is approximately $83.4 million, heading for $100 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joe Roth, it stars Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack.
MGM's PG-13 rated comedy hit Legally Blonde fell two rungs to ninth place in its fifth week with a still attractive ESTIMATED $3.82 million (-35%) at 2,031 theaters (+505 theaters; $1,881 per theater).
Blonde, which cost only $18 million to produce, has a cume of approximately $78.7 million and is on its way to a very profitable $85 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Robert Luketic, the Marc Platt production stars Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber and Jennifer Coolidge with a special appearance by Raquel Welch.
Rounding out the Top Ten was MGM's R rated thriller Original Sin, down four pegs in its second week with a slow ESTIMATED $3.05 million (-52%) at 2,194 theaters ($1,391 per theater). Its cume is approximately $12.49 million.
Written and directed by Michael Christofer, it stars Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Dimension Films' new expanded version of its PG rated youth appeal action comedy Spy Kids Special Edition with an unfunny ESTIMATED $1.43 million at 1,676 theaters ($851 per theater). Its cume (including its original run, which began with its $26.5 million opening the weekend of Mar. 30 - Apr. 1) is approximately $109.0 million.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino.
"Video and DVD are coming up in September so this was sort of the pre-amble to that," Miramax L.A. president Mark Gill said Sunday morning. (Dimension is a unit of Miramax Films, which is owned by Disney.)
Fox Searchlight Pictures R rated thriller The Deep End kicked off to a very encouraging ESTIMATED $0.14 million at 6 theaters ($23,415 per theater) in Los Angeles and New York. Its cume after five days is approximately $0.2 million.
Written produced and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, it stars Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic and Jonathan Tucker.
"That's significantly higher than our excellent opening on Sexy Beast (earlier this summer), which was $18,009 per theater," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "We'll be adding theaters this week, both expanding in New York and L.A. and another nine markets, so we'll go up to over 50 theaters by this Friday. And we have an expansion the following week, which will take us up to around 200 theaters."
Focusing on the promising kick off for Deep, Gilula noted, "We're very, very excited. It just shows, again, that there's a really avid moviegoing audience in the summertime for alternative, thoughtful movies in addition to the mega-movies. When the critics embrace a film, as they did with this--particularly with Tilda Swinton's performance--the crowds have come. It's a crowded marketplace (this summer) with the sheer number of films opening, so (our marketing department, under Nancy Utley) did a great job of getting the word out.
"It's actually been, I think, a fairly good summer (for specialized films), going back to Anniversary Party and Sexy Beast and then The Closet and Made and now The Deep End. There really is an alternative audience in the summertime that is looking for this type of product."
Gilula added that Beast in its ninth weekend did about $198,000 at 29 theaters, "which takes it to $5,964,500, which means we'll cross $6 million by Wednesday or Thursday. That's a tremendous result for us. It's also the number one limited release film for the summer."
USA Films' R rated sci-fi thriller Session 9 arrived to a quiet ESTIMATED $0.083 million at 30 theaters ($2,750 per theater).
Directed by Brad Anderson, it stars David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Brendan Sexton III, Steven Gevedon and Josh Lucas.
Paramount Classics' PG-13 rated drama An American Rhapsody opened to a drab ESTIMATED $0.042 million at 7 theaters ($6,000 per theater).
Written and Directed by Eva Gardos, it stars Nastassja Kinski, Scarlett Johansson and Tony Goldwyn.
Paramount held sneak previews Saturday night of its PG-13 comedy Rat Race.
Directed by Jerry Zucker, it stars Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart.
"The sneaks were about 60 percent capacity," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "There were 1,012 sneaks. We had 700 locations that had two sneaks, so you can say we effectively had 1,700 sneaks. The capacities at the later sneaks (at 10:30 p.m.) were only around 35 percent (given the later hour). The index score from the exit polls was 78, which is very good. I (don't yet have) the full exit polls, but I know it was 50-50 male-female."
Asked about the index score, Lewellen explained, "That is the result of the combination of checking the boxes (on the exit poll forms). It's an average. Anything over 70 or 71 is a very good response. Like, Forrest Gump got an 81, as an example. It's a very good score."
Lewellen said he anticipates that the film will play to a family audience.
Race opens this Friday (Aug. 17), Lewellen said, at "about 2,500 locations and probably 2,800 screens or so."
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Miramax's R rated French comedy The Closet go wider in its seventh week with an okay ESTIMATED $0.43 million (+5%) at 145 theaters (+17 theaters; $2,975 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.0 million.
Directed by Francis Veber, it stars Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Thierry Lhermitte and Michele Laroque.
Artisan's R rated comedy Made widened in its fifth week with a dull ESTIMATED $0.4 million at 128 theaters (+11 theaters; $3,125 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.0 million.
Written and directed by Jon Favreau, it stars Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Sean Combs, Famke Janssen, Faizon Love and Peter Falk.
Miramax's R rated Apocalypse Now Redux widened in its second week with a still promising ESTIMATED $0.35 million at 19 theaters (+17 theaters; $19,323 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.53 million.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford.
MGM's release of United Artists' R rated youth appeal comedy Ghost World widened in its fourth week with a still lively ESTIMATED $0.35 million (+1%) at 34 theaters (+11 theaters; $10,294 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.3 million.
Directed by Terry Swigoff, it stars Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas and Steve Buscemi.
Fine Line Features' R rated rock musical drama Hedwig and the Angry Inch added a few theaters in its fourth week with a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.26 million (-9%) at 50 theaters (+4 theaters; $5,180 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also wrote adapted his hit Off-Broadway play to the screen, Hedwig stars Mitchell in its title role.
Key films--those grossing more than $500,000--took in approximately $150.17 million, up about 47.89 per cent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $101.54 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 9.51 per cent from last weekend this year when key films took in $165.94 million.
Last year, Sony's second week of Hollow Man was first with $13.05 million at 2,956 theaters ($4,414 per theater); and Warner Bros.' second week of Space Cowboys was second with $13.02 million at 2,835 theaters ($4,591 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $26.0 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $76.6 million.