For, Aug. 23, 2013

Based on a true story, "The Butler" is far from perfect; it skims the surface of its powerful story, contains far too many spot-the-star cameos, and glides through various periods of history, a la "Forrest Gump," at the expense of character development.

But there are also a lot of pluses here, starting with Forest Whitaker in the lead role. As the former cotton-fields worker who became a house servant in the Old South, then, through a series of convoluted circumstances, rose to the position of butler in the White House, Whitaker is superb, perfectly capturing the frustrations and contradictions that accompanied the civil rights movement.

Oprah Winfrey is also excellent as his wife, and many supporting roles are filled with familiar faces, each actor rising to the occasion. And though it's over two hours, the film really moves. Filmmaker Lee Daniels manages to maintain entertainment value throughout so that it's never dull.

The major problems seem related strictly to the script: heavy-handed preaching and a desire to cram in every little aspect of importance, embracing clichés and superficiality to cut corners in the effort. More focus on Whitaker's character and his relationship with his family members would have made all the difference.

But if it encourages younger audiences to explore recent history, hey, I'm all for it.

By the way, director Lee Daniels' name is attached to the title thanks to a silly Hollywood insider ruling. Warner Bros. complained that "The Butler" shouldn't be used because it's the title of a 1916 silent short owned by that studio. So, believe it or not, the Motion Picture Association of America made the Weinstein Company change this film's title.

As if there are no other movies out there with the same titles.


New Hollywood movies this week are "The World's End" (R), an alien-invasion comedy by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost ("Shaun of the Dead"); "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" (PG-13), the first in a franchise based on the fantasy novels by Cassandra Clare; "You're Next," and R-rated home-invasion thriller.

And on the art-house front, Woody Allen's latest, a PG-13 melodrama titled "Blue Jasmine," with socialite Cate Blanchette forced to scale back after her investor husband is jailed; "Austenland" (PG-13), a light comedy about a woman (Keri Russell) obsessed with "Pride and Prejudice" visiting a Jane Austen theme park (run by Jane Seymour), written by local filmmaker Jerusha Hess and based on local author Shannon Hale's book; "The Spectacular Now," another R-rated coming-of-age comedy-drama; and a documentary about a killer whale, "Blackfish" (PG-13).