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Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, about a long-serving White House butler during a turbulent period in American history.
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, about a long-serving White House butler during a turbulent period in American history.

The Butler, Jobs: Two ways to turn inspirational into mediocre Add to ...

  • Directed by Lee Daniels
  • Written by Danny Strong
  • Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey
  • Classification 14A
  • Genre drama
  • Year 2013
  • Country USA
  • Language English

Jobs (Two stars); directed by Joshua Michael Stern; written by Matt Whiteley; starring Ashton Kutcher and Josh Gad; classification: 14A

Two new inspirational movies, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Jobs, are the kind of unsophisticated biographical films that don’t earn much critical respect but occasionally rack up Oscar nominations. They belong in what Dennis Bingham, author of Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, calls “a respectable genre of very low repute.” Both movies trip over the usual bio-hazards – gratuitous montages, speechifying characters and plots with historical incidents layered between private crises – but they play out in very different ways.

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Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name was imposed after a legal dispute forbid the use of The Butler) stars Forest Whitaker as a long-serving White House butler during a turbulent period. The film has a lot of momentum thanks to a star-studded ensemble cast, including Whitaker in the titular role and Oprah Winfrey in her first big-screen role in 15 years. The filmmakers claim that The Butler was inspired by the late Eugene Allen, a White House employee who worked for presidents from Truman to Reagan and lived to see the first black president. But Allen’s story has little to do with The Butler’s script, a Forrest Gump-like tale of a servant who was a front-row witness to modern civil-rights history. The butler’s name has been changed to Cecil Gaines.

As a filmmaker, Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) likes things pulpy, and you quickly get the sense that he can’t restrict himself to the Masterpiece Theatre model here. The Butler starts with an entirely fabricated sequence, straight out of a Blaxploitation movie, in which pre-teen Cecil witnesses his mother’s rape and his father’s murder. The killer’s mom (Vanessa Redgrave) takes the boy into her house, where he learns to serve and shut up. Eventually, Cecil (played by a slim and convincingly youthful Whitaker) marries Gloria (Winfrey) and has two sons before being hired at the White House. Though he’s instructed to see and hear nothing, he is invariably hovering over the shoulder of one president or another during critical historical moments.

Screenwriter Danny Strong, who wrote the sharp television satire of the Sarah Palin campaign, Game Change, offers the usual biographical double strands of the character’s public and private roles. One of Cecil and Gloria’s improbable friends is Howard (Terrence Howard), a layabout numbers-runner with a missing front tooth and a yen for Gloria. Gloria turns to drink and adultery when Cecil puts the president’s needs before his wife’s, which provides Oprah with some juicy scenes. The couple also has two opposite-minded sons. Louis (David Oyelowo), under the influence of his groovy college girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia), joins the wave of northern students who pushed for desegregation in the south in 1961. Little brother Charlie (Elijah Kelley), meanwhile, signs up for duty in Vietnam.

By contrast, the White House feels like comic relief, with a parade of presidential caricatures: pensive Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), who ponders sending federal troops to enforce school integration while painting flowers; awkward vice-president Richard Nixon (John Cusack), found in the kitchen scrounging for snacks; bumptious Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), who bellows instructions to his cabinet while seated on the toilet; and folksy Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), whose smoothly controlling wife Nancy is played by former lefty activist Jane Fonda.

Some of this is fun if heavy-handed, but from time to time Daniels’ broad approach hits home emotionally, particularly a scene that contrasts preparations for a White House state dinner with black students being spat upon and cursed for sitting on the white side of a segregated Woolworth’s counter. The Butler may be a sanctimonious cartoon, but it points to events in the civil rights struggle that were as grotesque and extraordinary as any fiction can invent.

Speaking of invention, it’s difficult to know what motivated this pedestrian biopic of the late inventor Steve Jobs beyond a posthumous declaration that he was right after all. The movie follows a 20-year period from Jobs’s college days to his presentation of the iPod in 2001, and stars Ashton Kutcher, who does a good impersonation of the Apple co-founder’s hunched over posture and reedy voice. But did Jobs actually strut around like the hero of an Ayn Rand novel, alternately making inspirational speeches about the future and denouncing the fools who tried to compromise his vision? If so, why did anyone like him?

We begin with the familiar story of the aspiring genius dropping out of college, heading to India, then dropping acid in a scene in which Jobs spins in a wheat field and, presumably, gazes into our collective, wired future.

A couple of years later, Jobs convinces his sweet-natured chubby friend Steve Wozniak that they should build and sell personal computers. Woz, though kind of a genius himself, can’t believe anyone would want to own a computer. (The real Wozniak, who is consulting on another movie about Jobs written by Aaron Sorkin, says the scene is nonsense: Everybody wanted a computer.).

Investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) brings in much-needed cash to convert a garage into a lab and manufacturing plant.

Triumphs and setbacks and more triumphs follow. Director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Matt Whiteley show Jobs’s cruel side – dumping a pregnant girlfriend (Ahna O’Reilly) and cutting founding partners out of the company’s astronomical profit – proving the movie is not hagiography.

Actually, it’s something much duller: a career summary. The film’s last half follows Jobs’s loss of Apple, and then his comeback in the nineties when he turned the company around, depicted as a series of boardroom power plays before Jobs emerges as the hero of a new generation of Apple underlings who pledge allegiance to his credo of radical excellence.

In a recent interview on The Colbert Report, Kutcher said he felt the movie was about how Steve Jobs lacked love in his life, but found it from customers’ appreciation of his beautiful products. I wish the movie had communicated any of that. If Jobs had been a producer on Jobs, he would have sent it back to the lab for a redesign.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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