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Lee Daniel’s The Butler / Rated PG-13 For Smoking and Language

Lee Daniels’ The Butler opened last August. It is a performance-driven drama. It is, not, however an Oscar contender.

August: Osage County was made last year, but in some places didn’t open until January 10. It is also performance-driven drama. It has one Oscar nomination.

Why am I talking about these films together? Because they are both Oscar-bait. Almost everybody in these films has won an Oscar. In some cases more than one. Is it enough? No, they want more. But the nominating committee didn’t bite.

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Lee Daniel’s The Butler is so named because way back in 1916 Warner Bros. released a short film called The Butler. That’s what this new film was to be called. So people wouldn’t get confused – and who hasn’t seen the 1916 movie? – WB objected to the original title, hence the change to Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

(The Marx Brothers had a similar problem with WB over their film A Night in Casablanca, prompting Groucho to write them that he was “sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo.”)

Anyway, Lee Daniel of the title is the movie’s director, with Forest Whitaker in the title role of Cecil Gaines, the butler, and Oprah Winfrey playing Gaines’ wife. The film is a long and rambling story of civil rights in America, played out through a butler (not Rhett) serving in the White House (not the Confederate army). The story is a fictionalized account of the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, who served from Truman through Reagan.

Gaines makes his way out of the Old South to a job as White House butler. He serves each President and sees lots of history. Most of what is on screen is based on the civil rights movement.

The film is a little too long and obvious. But one reason to see it is the cast of actors who portray the Presidents. Robin Williams (who played Teddy Roosevelt in the Night in the Museum films) is Ike. John Cusack is Nixon. James Marsden plays a young John Kennedy. Liv Schreiber is LBJ. And in the best nail-the-image and motions, is Alan Rickman playing Ronald Reagan. Jane Fonda plays Nancy.

In August: Osage County the cast is similarly loaded. The film is based on Tracy Letts’ Broadway play, taking place mostly in one room. Included as members of a deeply dysfunctional family are Meryl Streep, Sam Shepherd, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Juliet Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch. BC has been in five of the last six films I’ve seen, and returned to the small screen last month in the PBS series Sherlock.

In this film MS plays a dying woman, whose family has gathered in the summer heat for a farewell. Almost immediately, another family member commits suicide – which tells you pretty much all you want to know about these people.

The rest of the film includes enough substance abuse, adultery, fighting, and all-round nastiness to fill an entire season of Intervention. The Corleone family, sitting around the family table eating spaghetti and planning to murder 50 or 60 people and bribe every official in the country, seems much less dysfunctional than does this crew.

There are a few shocking surprises, which pop up mostly toward the end. These comprise the even-nastier icing on this dysfunctional cake, and the film is not fun to watch despite a few moments of humor.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) rated 3.0 out of 4.0 reasons I hope I have your vote. If not I will have to get a job, a real job. August OC rated 3.0 out of 4.0 reasons to agree to stop fighting. Ratings based on acting performances. In both cases they are better than the showcases.

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