"Lee Daniels' The Butler," starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and a parade of famous faces, isn't out in theaters until Aug. 16, but with the film's review embargo lifted by The Weinstein Company on Friday at midnight, critics are free to let their voices be heard right now.
"Daniels knows how to push an audience's buttons, and as crudely obvious as 'The Butler' can be -- whether juxtaposing a Woolworth's lunch-counter protest with a formal White House dinner, or showing a character keeling over at the breakfast table with oxygen tank attached -- it's also genuinely rousing," Variety critic Scott Foundas wrote in his positive notice on the film. "By the end, it's hard not to feel moved, if also more than a bit manhandled."
This is only Daniels' fourth feature as a director; he was nominated in the Best Director category for "Precious," his second film, and is in full awards mode here as well, at least according to TheWrap's Alonso Duralde.
"The cuckoo-rococo side of Daniels, that boundaries-free showman behind such loony spectacles as 'The Paperboy' and 'Shadowboxer,' is nowhere to be found here; instead, he's operating very much in awards-bait mode, juggling historical grandeur, family turmoil and a changing societal landscape." For Duralde, who also gave "The Butler" positive marks, it worked: He wrote that Daniels' film is "head and shoulders above feel-good kitsch like 'The Help,'" an Oscar nominee for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards.
Not everyone was as enamored. "'The Butler' plays less like a personal epic and more like a glossed-over highlight reel of African-Americans’ long, difficult march to equality," wrote Tim Grierson at ScreenDaily.
CinemaBlend's Katey Rich similarly found the film's clip-package scope and tonal inconsistencies to be a bridge too far. "'The Butler' gets torn in too many directions, a story with too much to say and almost no effective way of saying it," she wrote in a mixed-negative review.
Nearly every critic, however, heaped praise on Winfrey, who plays Whitaker's onscreen wife.
"Winfrey is clearly reveling in the opportunity to shake up her image a bit and play a boozy adulteress," wrote Duralde. Writing for EW.com, Chris Nashawaty noted that Winfrey's turn was "beautifully nuanced." Even Rich found herself enamored (be warned mild spoilers ahead:
Oprah brings some much-needed levity-- and eventually high drama-- to the film. A subplot in which her character gives in to temptation with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) goes nowhere, but it gives Oprah the flirtatious line "What you doing with my hangers?" and God love it for that. When Cecil comes home the day Kennedy is shot, her honest-to-God response is "I'm really sorry about the President. But you and that White House can kiss my ass." How can anybody else be expected to compete with that?
Thus far, however, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" has a 75 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (with many of the nation's top critics having yet to weigh in).
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is out in theaters on Aug. 16.