"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is already generating Oscar buzz ahead of its Friday release.
Strong reviews for the movie should help its case with Academy members and viewers looking for a reprieve from summer blockbuster fare. The movie focuses on a quiet White House butler who serves the most powerful men in the free world under eight presidential administrations, examining the Civil Rights movement and changing attitudes towards social and political equality in the process.
Some critics have carped that the film is overly didactic and complained that Daniels' direction lacks subtlety, but the performances of stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey have earned high marks.
Titled "Lee Daniels' The Butler" in a concession to a dragged out title dispute with Warner Bros., the film has earned a sterling 79 percent "fresh" rating on the critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Of course, not everyone was feeling the love. TheWrap's Alonso Duralde praised the acting and admired the film's ambition, but groused that it was over-stuffed and emotionally bombastic. The culprit, he wrote, is a fierce desire by the filmmakers to hear their names called after an envelope is opened and the words "and the winner is…" are intoned.
"Where the movie falls apart is in its desire to deliver Oscar-clip money shots; I counted three or four occasions where the score by Rodrigo Leão wells up for what’s supposed to be a 'cry now' moment, but the intended sweep just isn’t there," Duralde wrote.
Yes it suffers from a case of Oscar-itis, Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly wrote, but the actors and the scenes of Whitaker's domestic clashes with his restless son and alcoholic wife give the film its lift.
"'Lee Daniels' The Butler' is an ambitious, sweeping period drama that manages to be incredibly affecting and feel as if the words ''For Your Consideration'' are stamped across every frame," Nashawaty wrote.
In the New York Times, A.O. Scott praised the film for its exuberance, even as he noted that it was history painted in neon — with dabs of humor and pageantry mixed in. That tone, he implied, helped rescue the film from being overly instructional.
"The history of racism in America, and of efforts to overcome it, is usually addressed by Hollywood with a solemn, anxious, churchly hush and flattened into a tableau of villains and saints," Scott wrote. "Mr. Daniels and the screenwriter, Danny Strong, understand that both the horror and the heroism are connected with everything else that makes America such a complicated, interesting, appalling and glorious place: our politics, our popular culture, our deepest desires and our simplest habits. Making the topic safe and boring is no good for anyone."
Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press opined that some performers failed to rise to the challenge — Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower proved a particular distraction — but wrote that the film works because of the dynamic between Whitaker and his rebellious son (David Oyelowo).
"Their relationship gives structure to the broad story of civil rights in America – a story crucial to tell, and crucial to hear," Noveck wrote. "Daniels and company may not have made a masterpiece, but they have made a film you should see."
In a by-and-large laudatory notice, New York magazine's David Edelstein said that the filmmaker hammers home his points by too often contrasting the staid White House setting with the scenes of racial unrest on the streets the surround 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet, he found the picture to be a moving depiction of that period.
"'Lee Daniels' The Butler' ends with the election of Barack Obama-another signpost," Edelstein wrote. "The movie seems to have been made with one eye on the White House screening room, but in our less cynical moments we can acknowledge that that will be a hell of a screening."