TBT: Flubber (1997)

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As we close out the first month of TBT’s for the year 2015 here, I’d just like to remind everyone not to panic. Although it seems like the calendar is already rushing by, uh. . . well, actually. Yeah it is just rushing by. I had a thought there for a second and lost it. This is getting a bit silly, that I’ve already done one month’s worth of these things (and it’s been a long month too — there were five Thursdays this month). At the same time, we are getting that much further away from the terrible day wherein our beloved Robin Williams left us. I’ve never been able to stop thinking about that day really. So I thought it was high time we revisit one of his lesser known, perhaps lesser-quality roles in 

Today’s food for thought: Flubber.

flubber

Bouncing off the walls since: November 26, 1997

[VHS]

It may not be a good movie, much less a remake of The Absent-Minded Professor, but who doesn’t remember flubber — either the title or the namesake green, gooey stretchy stuff? This is one of those movies that just reeks of ’90s cheese, but personally that’s a scent I enjoy. Robin Williams may be one of the only good things about this flick about a college professor attempting to save the local college by raising money through his science experiments, but that was really enough for me as a kid.

Flubber helped pass the time on so many car trips my family used to take out West. All five of us Littles schlocked into the family SUV, a travel-sized TV shoved in between the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat aimed back at three youngsters struggling to not get on each other’s last nerve over the course of a 20-plus hour journey. Ah yes, these were the days. For 28-year-old me, Flubber represents innocence if nothing else. This ain’t a film built to withstand even the most generous of criticism. It’s poorly written, hastily executed and mired in virtually every cliche you can attach flying rubber to.

But it’s a film that guards some oh-so-precious memories I have swimming around in the old noggin. Memories of how when we finally broke out into the open plains of the sprawling mid-west just beyond St. Louis, how the sun would take forever to set over the horizon; memories of how tight-knit a family unit can be for some time before the inevitable adolescent stages set in and slowly but surely pull the dynamic into an entirely new direction. I’m still very much close with my brother, my sister and my mom and dad. But we don’t take these car trips anymore. We’ve sort of grown out of them. Just like when (or if) I choose to go back and watch Flubber now, I’ll notice how much my critical mind will not allow me to just enjoy the film for what it presents: good-natured, high-spirited mischief.

Robin Williams is Professor Philip Brainard, a well-meaning man but whose dedication to science overshadows pretty much everything else in his life. He has attempted to marry his sweetheart Sara (Marcia Gay Harden) on a couple of occasions but each time something has come up. On the eve of the third go-around, Philip discovers an unusual compound that contains a ridiculous amount of energy that only increases as it interacts with other objects; he sets his ‘It’s Time to Get Married Finally’ alarm but sets it for the wrong time. Sara understandably has had enough. Enter a typically smarmy Christopher McDonald as Philip’s former partner, Wilson Croft, who has his heart set on making up for Philip’s indiscretions with his (former) lover as well as financially benefitting from Philip’s hard work.

The fictitious Medfield College, where Sara is college president, is in trouble if this new energy source fails to demonstrate its practical applications. A majority of the film is spent watching professor attempt to simply keep flubber in control. He thwarts home invaders in the process of discovering that his creation actually has personality and energy in overwhelming abundance. I’m sure if I go back and watch now, I’d be struck by the uncanny resemblance between the energetic green goo and Williams’ off-screen persona. As he slowly starts mastering how to control flubber, he starts to really have some fun. He sticks it to the shoes of college basketball players to make them jump higher and run faster (and the team of course ends up winning the game), and he liberally applies it to a number of everyday objects including a golf ball, a basketball and his car.

It has been years since I’ve last experienced the whiz-bang-pop of Les Mayfield’s creation, but I still fondly remember Professor Brainard’s curious floating robot, Weebo (voiced by Jodi Benson). If it wasn’t Williams’ appropriately whacked-out hairdo or his fumbling professor that’s memorable, then surely it’s the little yellow, round droid that leaves an impression. Dear Weebo, the voice of reason and optimism in times of hardship and heartbreak, you were a strange but wonderful invention of this film. It was very sad indeed watching you get struck down by a bad guy with a baseball bat. This is the kind of movie that inspires the child in me to question what kind of trouble I would get into if I had some flubber of my very own. What kind of good would I be able to do with it, if any? Would I use it for personal gain, or would I share my creation with others? Would I save that local college so I could rekindle my love with someone whom I’ve had great difficulty in expressing my true feelings for? Would I use it for a specific purpose, i.e. kicking Christopher McDonald’s ass?

Flubber is not a memorable film if you’re just considering the story. But the title of the movie alone is fun to play around with. Is it a noun, a verb, an adjective? Is it alive or just a chemical/CGI creation of Disney? Most importantly: what happens when you accidentally ingest the stuff . . . . would it taste good?

Not quite like Silly Putty. This has got more . . . um, spunk.

Not quite like Silly Putty. This has got more . . . um, spunk.

2-5Recommendation: This modern spin on the 1961 Robert Stevenson film about a professor who discovers an anti-gravity substance is perhaps not the best use of Robin Williams’ talents but it features him in a lovable enough capacity. A few elements on the periphery help make this one a fun outing for youngsters — i.e. the titular green goo and Professor Brainard’s robotic helpers. It is highly slapstick, though and could have benefitted from stronger writing. If you haven’t ever seen this, I’d be willing to recommend checking it out if you have kids.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 93 mins.

TBTrivia: According to Wil Wheaton, in the scenes that he was in with Robin Williams, they would film a take the way it was supposed to be filmed. After that take, Williams would often want to improvise scenes differently than the script, just for fun. Those scenes were not added to the actual film, but there were enough scenes to make an entirely different movie.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

OCMC: Robin Williams, what a concept. . .

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I think in order to best encapsulate this week, and the range of emotions that have also been dealt with over the past couple, I will include this excellent montage of photos of Robin throughout his career that has been put together by a personal friend of Steve Oedekerk (the man responsible for one of my all-time favorite spoof-comedies, Kung Pow! Enter the Fist), and this clip I found via some snooping around on Facebook. (Yes, I am cool enough to be on Steve’s friend list. . .and his friend’s list isn’t even that big, you guys!!!!)

It may be a 7 minute clip but don’t let the time stamp fool you. Once you start it, this video flies by. Arguably too quickly. It also seems to be able to say more about the man than a bunch of pretty words that I could write. Some of you may have already seen this, but for those who haven’t I really hope you enjoy it and maybe even agree that this is one of the most beautiful and certainly one of the more comprehensive retrospectives of the life and career of a gifted man, entertainer, supporter, activist, son, cousin, brother, husband, father.

Oh captain my captain, we thank you. For you have made all of our lives extraordinary just for being.

Here’s the films/performances I have covered over the last week for anyone who has missed them:

  1. Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad
  2. Chris Nielsen in What Dreams May Come
  3. Seymour “Sy” Parrish in One Hour Photo
  4. TBT: Dead Poet’s Society
  5. Alan Parrish in Jumanji
  6. Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfire

OCMC: Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfire

mrs-doubtfireWe have reached the end of the voyage, dear friends. Our beloved Captain is due back on shore tomorrow, where he shall drop anchor and bid adieu to us after one fine week of sailing the high seas. I guess I better drop the metaphor before it gets even more confusing. Basically, now that the week where it’s been acceptable for me to say “Oh captain my captain” to pretty much everything is coming to a close, I’m feeling quite bittersweet about the whole thing.

I’ve really enjoyed going back and revisiting each of these moments (and many others) this week. I hope you all have as well, even though at times I’ve felt as if this OCMC tribute has been a little redundant. Not necessarily pointless, but it wasn’t as if we needed any more reminding of the man’s talents given the outpouring of support and love for the man over the last fortnight. Hopefully I haven’t so much sold you on anything as much as I’ve reminded people of why I, like millions of other fans, couldn’t help myself in verbalizing the pain I felt for his loss. It only seemed natural to suspend activities on DSB for one week and properly tip my hat to a performer I’ve idolized for awhile. Yes that’s right — idolized. (I promised myself a while ago that would be a word I’d never use. . .but, well. . .ehem.)

There are few characters created that become so successful, so endearing to audiences as to become greater than the film itself. In some instances they become standards to which other characters in said genre might be measured. I believe today’s entry more than qualifies.

Guys and gals I’d like you to (re)acquaint yourselves with Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire, a creation that could only have been Robin’s. A tough nanny with high standards of cleanliness and organization and a penchant for grooming well-behaved, cooperative children, she was essentially Mary Poppins with a Scottish accent and a beard. (Well, the beard’s implied. We knew she was a man, either way.) The character’s great, but the situation is what really projected Williams’ multi-tasking talents: Mrs. Doubtfire was actually the brilliant brain-nanny of desperate but talented voice actor Daniel Hillard who, after royally fumbling his marriage with Miranda (Sally Field), planned on remaining in his children’s lives in whatever capacity he may be able. He engineers a new character to look after the three tykes as Miranda is seemingly unable to do quality parenting of her own (oops, too harsh?) and could use the help. When the funny-talking, funny-looking she-male inadvertently impinges upon his ability to function in his own world, time will only tell before the cracks begin to show. And then. . .then what happens?

It may be worth mentioning that this is my very favorite role Robin Williams has played. His nanny is pure magic.

*

Quoted: “Carpe dentum. Seize the teeth!”


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OCMC: Alan Parrish in Jumanji

jumanji-1“AAAAHHHH!! AHHH!!! . . . . . . AH!”

Noises. Robin Williams came equipped with many of them, and in this outrageously fun film from the mid-90s, he’s provided an opportunity to tap into that part of him that was more. . . . shall we say, animalistic? As a child who got trapped inside the dangerous board game Jumanji, Alan Parrish has spent most of his “life” fighting for. . . well, a way out. An escape back to the real world.

And who can really blame him when he pops out of the middle of the game covered in vine and bramble, looking like George of the Jungle? I mean, my main man here is all hopped-up on some bath salts or something, dressed in foliage. Foliage dude. That style is SOOO 1960s. . .or whenever it was when he was rather unceremoniously consumed by a board game. When things were simple and dad made ends meet by pumping out shoes on a production line. Now (flash-forward roughly 20 years) it’s all complicated. Now kids are stumbling upon random board games in the loft of a mansion, getting into all kinds of trouble. . .like inviting random stampedes into the home or unleashing them upon the town. Bugs the size of Chihuahuas are the products of curious children snooping around where they perhaps shouldn’t.

But if there is one constant we always associate with the man when he’s up on the silver screen, it’s the adventure factor. Here is a film where that idea is exploited for the purpose of plot progression. In other words, comparatively Robin Williams is not the craziest thing about Jumanji; about a movie featuring kids battling flash floods and quick sand in their living rooms, and outlasting killer bees the size of, yes, small dogs. The environment is. Robin’s beard might be the craziest thing about his character. Well, that and the noises. Yes indeed, this is one of those performances that may not ultimately stand out from the crowd when comparing to his other creations but this is one that seamlessly blends in with the style and tone, this is Robin Williams basking in entertainment that, for once, has not been created wholly on his own.

When a new family moves into the Parrish’s gorgeous home twenty-six years after a strange occurrence involving the board game in the living room, history looks to repeat itself when two children — Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) — discover the relic and begin playing, unaware that their first experience is merely a repetition of a vicious cycle that will bring to life some very real (and surreal) things. They dared roll the dice, now they must be prepared to face the consequences. . . .or at the very least, to face a very hairy Robin Williams.

*

Quoted: “What happened to you, the Clampetts have a yard sale? What do you want, I never shaved before.”


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TBT: Dead Poets Society (1989)

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As if this wasn’t going to happen you guys. . .

This is the perfect combination of fitting in with this month’s sort-of-theme (going back to school, woo!) and the ongoing tribute to one of my favorite performers of all time. We now have an opportunity to crack into what many of us probably hold dear to our hearts as one of the most touching Robin Williams performances. Though I doubt many grade-school classes have collectively taken a stand up on their desks in protest of their “oppressive teachers” and “unreasonable course loads,” few and far between are the folks who haven’t at least wanted to. Try coming across someone who hasn’t at some point quoted a line from  

Today’s food for thought: Dead Poet’s Society

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Carpe-ing the diem since: June 2, 1989

[DVD]

Somewhere out there is a teacher I am indebted to for introducing me to this film. I am a little embarrassed I can’t remember in what class I watched this, but I’m so fortunate that was the environment in which it was brought to my attention because I’m not typically drawn to school dramas, even with a name like Robin Williams in it. I’m fairly sure this would have been a title I might have avoided had it not been for the chance encounter in an English class.

Perhaps not. Inevitability might have had the final say on that, for Peter Weir’s ode to the fleeting nature of boyish idealism and romantic notions of challenging the status quo is a difficult one to avoid, and turned out to be so unlike the eponymous club of the initiated. Its influence has been ever-widening, like ripples in a pond gradually encompassing everything within its borders. One thinks of inspirational films, and good chance this title is one of the first five or ten that come to mind.

There were no rites of passage in getting to know William’s John Keating. Taking him into our hearts was a most natural transformation. His passionate, colorful and off-beat approach to educating his students — nay, enlightening them — was what made this film crackle to life, what made this place worth tolerating if you could take his words and make them apply to your own place in the universe.

“Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence.” The four pillars of education echoed monotonously off physical ones, drowning in the catacombs of this most unholy of institutions. Attending a school like the stiff Walton Academy for Boys for even a single semester was more than enough time to become jaded, enough time for one’s skin to toughen to the point of becoming brittle in response to a cruel and demanding world built by dedicated workers, not daydreamers. After all, boys won’t be boys for long, and outside the walls of the prep academy lay a laundry list of matters of pressing urgency that demanded focus and seriousness of purpose. In the short term this necessarily implied preening one’s self for the pristine Ivy Leaguers. After that, perhaps careers of distinguished but quiet fame.

Dead Poets Society is written beautifully, weighing the values of traditional, old-school practicality against the inexplicable urgency of youth and individuality. The passion that threatened to tear the two conventions apart rightfully secured the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1990. Beyond bullish headmaster Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd) and the parade of tenured graybeards roaming the Academy’s hallways — threatening, as always, with a paddle to beat the next free-thinking so-and-so into submission — notions of conformity and obedience extended to peripheral characters such as Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), in effect blanketing this 1950s scene in a snowdrift of almost inescapable bleakness. To a lesser extent, meek and mild Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) came from a well-to-do household that ultimately becomes divided over the John Keating situation. His situation was far less severe than Neal Perry’s, but it helped paint a bigger picture, a society still clinging on to old values in whatever way it could.

The harsh environs no doubt enhanced this newcomer’s rejuvenating presence. Not just because of Williams, but because the character was such a departure from everything these young and wide-eyeds had known; a much-needed warmth to melt away the layers of permanent frost this isolated community was erstwhile entrenched. I feel we’ve been indebted to the great Robin Williams in the same way I want to tell that teacher I owe him or her one. This experience is certainly one for the books.

4-0Recommendation: A film with little urgency for me to recommend. You’ve either caught this in class (or slept through it, who knows), or on television at some point, surely. An immensely popular film for all the right reasons, Dead Poets Society managed to capture the fleeting essence of boyhood developing into manhood in an era where tolerance for deviating from the norm was more frowned upon than encouraged. Packed to the brim with memorable and inspiring quotes, the film I recommend without restraint as your next Robin Williams adventure if you haven’t seen it already.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 128 mins.

TBTrivia: The irony in Robert Sean Leonard’s character’s struggles here are not lost upon dedicated viewers of the hit TV drama House, wherein Leonard plays one of the heartbeats in Dr. James Wilson, perhaps the only legitimate friend of the ornery Dr. Gregory House. Here, Neal Perry battles with his no-nonsense father about a career in acting, though his father demands he attend medical school. A request that comes at a price of tragic proportions.

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Photo credits: http://www.wallpaperpulse.com; http://www.imdb.com 

OCMC: Seymour “Sy” Parrish in One Hour Photo

one_hour_photoHere we have one of those roles where Robin Williams simultaneously truly impressed me and deeply concerned me. His ability to detach — as evidenced by this chilling character, a lonely one-hour-photo developer named Seymour “Sy” Parrish — seemed like a mere eject button he could push (“get me outta here”), an escape route so desperately needed yet so subtle we never stopped to think about the fact he might be saying something more than what the script is telling him to bring to the table.

Yeah, yeah. . .the whole ‘reading into things too much.’ It’s all too easy to do when he’s just so different in this role, and incidentally more convincing here than in any other role he’s ever played, if you ask me. From a completely objective standpoint, this is perhaps Robin Williams’ most technically impressive role, as he dials down his manic energy to a 1 out of 10. It’s the kind of taut, disciplined lead performance that should have earned him more than a Saturn Award.

In the course of 90 minutes, we go from meeting Sy, a painfully awkward man who works diligently to make sure all the photos he develops are as high quality as they can be; to empathizing with a true loner who uses his job as a way to socialize with the outside world (namely the Yorkin family, his favorite customers); to becoming excruciatingly uncomfortable around a sociopathic man desperate to make one family’s life experiences and memories his own, living vicariously through the prints he develops for them on a regular basis. His initial friendliness morphs into an extreme associative psychological disorder that is portrayed with brilliance and bravery by Robin Williams.

I particularly like this scene, not only because it was the most readily-available clip I could find. . .like, anywhere, but because it. . .well, it freaks me out. This is so unlike Robin Williams, but goes to exemplify the actor’s depth. Granted, a great deal of what makes those ten seconds eeky-creeky is the stylistic flourishes applied by cinematographic genius Jeff Cronenworth, who bathes the entire affair in a haunting, listless monotone, but it’s still Williams dead-center, and wow. The first time I watched this film was immediately before going to bed. That was. . .kind of a mistake. . .

*

Quoted: “What the hell is wrong with these people?”


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OCMC: Chris Nielsen in What Dreams May Come

wdmc-1Despite What Dreams May Come possessing a healthy amount of material that tends to bring tears to the eye, here’s an ultimately uplifting and sweeping drama that appeals on a more universal level than Bobcat Goldthwait’s darkly comic rumination on the nature of the living memorializing those who have passed.

For anyone concerned about “what happens after death,” this film could be looked at as more than just powerful suggestion. Snagging the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1998, Vincent Ward’s epic love story tells of a man wandering the afterlife in search of his wife after she kills herself when she finds it impossible to cope with the loss of her entire family in two separate car accidents.

In another one of my favorite dramatic overhauls, Robin Williams is at once vulnerable and desperate as Chris Nielsen. Once in heaven he does everything in his power to understand what is going on and how he can reconnect with his fragmented family. But when he learns an act of suicide means a direct ticket to Hell, Chris finds an entirely new purpose in the afterlife: rescuing his dear beloved from eternal agony.

To be completely honest I’m still reeling in the wake of the news but it’s getting easier each day. I miss the man dearly. I like to think he’s soaking up some nice shade underneath that beautiful blue Jacaranda.

*

Quoted: “A whole human life is just a heartbeat here in Heaven. Then we’ll all be together forever.”


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OCMC: Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

wgd-1Okay, I believe I’ve got this week mapped out the way I want. We’re going to start with the heavier performances and work our way out of the dark side of things. Like Anakin Skywalker, only trending in the opposite direction.

So this little. . .thing that I’m doing. . . .to pay proper tribute to the full range of acting chops Robin Williams undeniably possessed might seem like it’s starting a bit solemnly — I mean, I’m not sure you can find a darker comedy that this man has been in (perhaps Death to Smoochy gives it a run for its money) — but as the week goes on I’ll do my best to turn that frown upside-down by looking into some of his more funny moments. Come next Sunday, hopefully we will have built our way up to a fitting conclusion to this man’s legacy.

His wickedly fast comedic tongue most assuredly is what he’s most known for, though his markedly reserved dramatic persona is not to be ignored, either. Frequently these smaller moments in a career packed with bigger and more luminous ones are overlooked, because. . . well, we all do love it so when Robin makes us laugh.

Here, though, we couldn’t be further from that comfort. In this pitch-black comedy involving a high school teacher who is broken by his son’s suicide (and there’s no really good way of saying this) via autoerotic asphyxiation, Robin Williams demonstrates a truly heartbreaking reaction to his son’s untimely death. This one moment may be particularly sensitive given the events that have since transpired, but this is as good as I’ve ever seen Williams hold the screen as far as convincing us that real loss is going on around him.

World’s Greatest Dad is directed by none other than Bobcat Goldthwait (still the best name in the business, if you were to ask me. . .but you’re not so I guess we can move on) and stars Robin Williams as the aforementioned teacher; Daryl Sabara as his awful son Kyle; Alexie Gilmore as Lance’s love interest as well as colleague. . .and then several, several names you’ve likely never heard of.

The bulk of the movie’s emotional heft revolves around these key players, with various supporting roles showing up in the latter half of the film to offer support and their condolences to the shattered man. And this is precisely where the movie starts to take a really, really darkly comic turn. I don’t know. This movie is pretty weird, but I enjoy it. An overlooked piece for sure.

Quoted: “Ernest Hemingway once said all he wanted to do was write one true sentence. He also tried to scratch an itch on the back of his head with a shotgun.”


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O Captain, My Captain: A Tribute to Robin Williams

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Beginning next Monday, I will kick off my week-long tribute to Robin Williams, a man whom the title ‘genius’ or any other lofty descriptions most certainly apply but still somehow don’t seem to do justice. The news of his passing on Monday, August 11 hit me like a tidal wave. Not an entirely unpredictable reaction either, given how dramatic I tend to get sometimes. But this news, man this news wasn’t to be swallowed with any relative ease. Not at all.

There often trends a fine line between actual/normal and pretentious grieving. How does one pretentiously grieve, you might ask? I actually don’t really know, that sounds kind of stupid when I read back on it. But if Robin Williams wasn’t family (and he wasn’t, to many many millions of us), I tell you what, the loss of his talent in the industry and his face around. . .wherever the hell else he goes in his spare time (whatever modicum of time that may be) — sure feels like a family member suddenly removed from our presence.

That we are tasked with facing a future without Robin McLaurin Williams is an ugly proposition. One that I don’t look forward to acknowledging when I finally awaken from this stupor, not one bit. But in order to begin moving on, I feel like the coming week (that is, Monday August 18 through Friday the 24th) will be a great opportunity to highlight some of my favorite moments of his career, the time I’ve spent with him and to also gauge everyone else’s thoughts and responses to the legacy of our most beloved Genie, our most precious Jack, our silliest (but still endearing) President Tom Dobbs (there’s an obscure one).

So in the next several days things will be as normal on here but starting Monday it will be a Robin Williams Tribute Week, something that I am thinking as of right now will supplement regular blog content, if only for the time being. Please feel free to share your thoughts and favorite memories of this wonderful and exceedingly popular man, talented comedian and exemplary human being.

Also, in an effort to minimize the heaviness of such a post (one of my many regrettable In Memoriams, I’m afraid), here’s this:

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Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Release: Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Theater]

I think the real question here is, “Is it pretentious for the director to include his name in the title of the movie?” Or is it just pretentious to think about this being pretentious? Perhaps I’ll address that later Nick addresses this down below in comments, but in the meantime — the answer to the first is a resounding “Heck no.” Daniels’ film, featuring Forest Whitaker in a possible career-defining role, is both a heartwarming and tragic epic that unfolds similarly to Robert Zemeckis’ multiple-Oscar-winning Forrest Gump in that we visit several crucial periods in American history and see how they impact the life of a strong central character who undergoes both external and internal changes throughout.

The resultant timeline is full of emotional highs and lows. As one might imagine, there’s likely to be a lot of lows, since the material incorporates the violence from the civil rights movement along with the Vietnam conflict, just as two major examples. Despite the horrors on display however, there is a substantial amount of pleasantness to the proceedings. A lot of it stems from Cecil Gaines’ family life and the general essence of Whitaker in this role. He is absolutely fantastic — it’s clear he’s fully embraced the importance of what his character meant (his Cecil Gaines is actually based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen). Nominations should be awaiting with this one.

Even despite the movie being a rather loose adaptation, his life story is miraculous, to say the least. Growing up on the Westfall plantation, Cecil bears witness to gut-wrenching violence of the worst (most personal) kind. After it happens, the elderly Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) tells Cecil he is to start working inside the house from now on. Though the job was offered out of pity, his general treatment doesn’t exactly improve much as the notion of being an invisible servant in whatever room was impressed upon him rigorously. As gloomy as his situation initially seems, and Cecil doesn’t know it yet, this is finally a job with transformative powers.

Similarly to Forrest Gump, The Butler is a lengthy journey and takes its time to unfold. Patience may be required, but also it is with great ease that most people should be able to adhere. Daniels’ vision may wander around a bit, but the transitions made from scene to scene are often subtle yet very powerful. From the plantation house Cecil moves on for the city life in search of his next job. The woman he used to work for is nearing her death and he sees no future staying around the plantation anymore. He soon comes across a man named Maynard (Clarence Williams III) under dire circumstances and asks him for a job doing anything at all. Maynard reluctantly agrees to temporarily help out a malnourished Cecil. However, Maynard quickly learns just how good Cecil’s skills are and he suggests the boy move on to still bigger things. He informs him of a job opening at a ritzy hotel in Washington, D.C. and that he should consider applying. From the hotel, Cecil’s gainful employment continues as he moves up to the White House after discovering an open position for a butler there.

Daniels allows each scene to speak for themselves. As each one unfolds, Gaines’ worldview widens steadily and our respect for him grows accordingly. There’s a wonderful flow to the way small villages give way to the rush of the bigger city. The audio narration, read by Mr. Gaines, explains circumstances to us so even though we don’t have many “images” of these places, the time and places are anchored efficiently with what he has to say about them. Eventually we will meet a fantastic crew of other butlers who staff the busy American landmark: some who stand out the most are Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s upbeat Carter and Lenny Kravitz’ more reserved, but respectable James.

And of course, once we’re inside the White House we also will be getting to see the current leaders of the nation at the time. One of the most effective elements in Daniels’ film is his rotating door of great actors filling in significant roles, specifically the eight different presidents under which Cecil serves throughout his 34-year career. When Cecil first enters the Oval Office, we see a very thinly-haired Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He’s discussing something with members of his Cabinet while Cecil politely serves tea. The moment is just enough to give us the impression that a significant wind of change is about to start blowing  given the discussions ongoing. All those who fill in the presidential roles are terrific and similarly contribute to the scale of this story. Other famous personalities in the White House that we get to revisit include John F. Kennedy (James Marsden); Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber); Richard Nixon (John Cusack); and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Each actor really makes their mark on each of their respective presidential roles and it’s quite a bit of fun seeing how the attitudes and atmospheres change with each new leader.

While these sweeping changes are being examined at the top tier of the political ladder, Cecil must always mind his business and be sure to strictly stick to his job. . . . . . that old nasty adage of being seen, but not heard really applies here. By doing just that, the mild-mannered Cecil becomes one of the most entrusted employees within the building which is by no means an accidental occurrence. As he has attempted to be all his life, Cecil is simply a patient and humbled man who retains every ounce of his dignity even though things at home aren’t exactly perfect. His eldest son, Louis, isn’t particularly proud of his father and often overlooks the fact that he’s had to work extremely hard to get to where he’s at now. Louis leaves for college in Tennessee, where Cecil knows trouble is likely to find him, but Louis isn’t listening. His wife, Gloria (a beautiful and heartwarming performance from Oprah Winfrey was a terrific surprise for me) is more supportive of her husband but also more supportive of her son making up his own mind. A nail is driven between Louis and Cecil’s point of view on the issue of segregation that’s currently ravaging the nation and this becomes a major focal point of the latter half of the film.

With that said, it becomes increasingly obvious as the years pass and the story amasses more and more historical significance that Daniels’ has essentially created two movies in one. One is the story of Cecil and his evolution from the terrible cotton fields to the dignified role he plays in serving the many presidents. This is arguably the overriding narrative. The second is clearly the idealogical struggle between Cecil and his eldest son, who both obviously want policies and social status to change for blacks. Whereas Cecil is content to fight the good fight that he always has by maintaining his calm and working hard, Louis feels drawn more to the revolutionary points of view shared by the Black Panthers — and I needn’t say much more about that. We can see where that story may or may not go.

Because of the heavy emphasis on the struggle between father and son, the movie seems to take on a bit too much, perhaps more than it rightfully should have to handle in this limited run time. Had the movie lasted in excess of three hours the cumulative effect might have been more profound. Instead, the story moves back and forth between Cecil and Louis for about an hour and it can get a little confusing. Who should we have to care about more? There are definite answers to that question, but Lee Daniels doesn’t really know what to say. It’s not the worst complaint you can have for a movie with this much history tied into it, but it’s difficult to ignore the obvious transitions between the three major acts.

These moments are marked by Cecil’s entrance into the White House for the first time (thus identifying Act Two), and the start of the Vietnam War (Act Three). Although the fact that the two stories — that of Cecil and that of the relationship between him and his oldest son — don’t mesh as smoothly as they could have, this seems to be a relatively small issue with a movie carrying this much weight. Not to mention, every member in the Gaines household are represented with brilliant performances by young actors David Oyelowo (who plays Louis) and Isaac White (who plays the younger sibling, Charlie). It may be obvious when we’ve shifted gears a little, but their screen times are both equally captivating and White is absolutely hilarious as Charlie.

I really can’t say enough about the cast. Everyone involved turns in stellar performances and considering that, this movie is far better than it maybe should have been. It’s hardly a groundbreaking story that we learn of here, even despite the incredible truth behind it and when one considers the horrible political culture in America at the time. One man comes from behind to get ahead of most everyone else and of course, things go all but smoothly for him along the way. Gaines suffers terrible personal losses, as well as he experiences the pain of a nation suffering from prejudice, hatred and division. Even though we’ve journeyed through the filth and grime with other public figures in movies before, Whitaker’s performance truly makes Eugene Allen iconic — a label which he perhaps earned himself; but the actor confirms it.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it’s not perfect and at times darts between historical and familial themes of devotion, betrayal, respect and dignity, the direction by Lee Daniels affords the film a beautiful aura, a respectful tone and a richly detailed culture from start to finish. It’s both funny and extremely serious; simultaneously poetic and dispassionate. Juggling these extremes cannot have been an easy task, and if you’re willing to see how it’s handled, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Rated: PG-13 (hard)

Running Time: 126 mins.

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