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February 27, 2014

Sometimes bad films, books called 'Classic'

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — About 40 years ago a movie was made that set the standard for overhyped and underwhelming films. It was “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Redford was the hottest thing in Hollywood at the time and Time Magazine ran a cover story on the film. When it was finally released it completely bombed.

When I saw it later on TV I was shocked at how bad it was. To be fair, I also read the book and wondered how it could ever be deemed a “classic” or make a good movie. I’m even more amazed Hollywood recently did a re-make with Leonardo DeCipario. Apparently it wasn’t enough to make a bad film once.

Anyway, the moral of the story is not that Hollywood likes to beat a dead horse. It’s that it’s best not to listen to hype and anticipate what you will think of a film. The publicity surrounding it can be very misleading.

All this brings me to a recent “blockbuster” called “The Butler.”  Rarely have I heard a so-so film get such rave reviews from so many commentators. Maybe they were fawning over Oprah Winfrey who was in the film and made the rounds promoting it. After all, this is the lady who has the Midas touch. If she recommends a book it becomes a best seller. If she makes a negative passing remark about beef she gets sued by the industry because her opinion carries so much weight.

On the surface “The Butler” sounds like a truly impressive film. “Inspired by a true story,” in other words we don’t know how true it is, a poor African American rises up from poverty and managed to land a job as a butler in the White House. He gets to know several presidents and serves in his capacity for 30 years.

In the meantime he is apparently happily married and raising two boys. The main theme of the film is the dichotomy of his work in the White House up against his oldest son who becomes a militant in the civil rights movement. As a White House butler he is not supposed to give his opinion about anything. His son can’t understand how he can be so passive.

The problem with the movie is three-fold. It’s slower than molasses, overly long, and lacks any real character development. It’s hard to bond with any characters when you never get to know them. Everything feels superficial. You have to take it for granted that he is a loving husband and parent, and that he develops great relationships with all the presidents he serves. The movie certainly doesn’t cultivate them.

It’s a shame that the movie comes out so flat. It covers the very important subjects of civil rights and race relations, and “The Butler” provides a good device to explore them. It’s just that transporting the narrative to the big screen could have been so much better.

On a positive note, I do know people who actually liked the film. Because of that I won’t totally discount “The Butler” since its message is important. Just be prepared for some disappointment.  “The Great Gatsby” proved that big stars and big hype don’t necessarily make a great movie.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.