What it’s about
Near as I can tell, it’s about self-flagellation. Butley, a film adaptation of a play by Simon Gray, follows a day in the life of Ben Butley, an English professor who has observational powers an par with Sherlock Holmes when it comes to uncovering chinks in the psychic armor of those around him. Watching him verbally spar with the procession of people who come in and out of his office is like watching Bruce Lee beat the crap out of a procession of bad guys coming in and out of the dojo, only these aren’t bad guys. They’re his friends and lovers, who are, presumably, the only people willing to tolerate such behavior.
What I like about it
One watches a play/movie like Butley not for enjoyment in any normal sense of the word but out of morbid fascination and appreciation for virtuoso performances. Harold Pinter, who directed the play, had this to say about it: “The extraordinary thing about Butley, it still seems to me, is that the play gives us a character who hurls himself towards the destruction while living, in the fever of his intellectual hell, with a vitality and brilliance known to few of us. He courts death by remaining ruthlessly – even dementedly – alive.” Yeah, what he said. And as for the virtuoso part of it, that comes both from the dialogue itself and from the stunning performance from Alan Bates as Butley, who delivers much of it. Remember back in the day in the 80s when guitar shredding reached its peak with guys like Yngwie and Steve Vai? Bates is basically a thespian equivalent of those guys. Even when the source material isn’t exactly one’s cup of tea, you gotta admit–the guy’s got chops.
What I didn’t like about it
To extend the guitar shredding analogy, it can wear a bit thin after a while. It’s intended to be brutal in the way something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is brutal, and it is. However, because the individual hits, though more frequent, are also cerebral, the result is surgical, precise, and self-cauterizing in contrast to the fatality moves of George and Martha. One should be thankful for that, I suppose.
Who else likes it
Not everybody. There’s no critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, though Roger Ebert, Cole Smithey, and Emanuel Levey all give it a positive review, and the audience rating is 63%. I’m surprised it’s that high. One audience reviewer appearing under the user name “C.J.A.” has this to say about it:
“The makers want us to feel sorry for the main character, an English professor with severe abandonment issues, but it’s hard to sympathize when the story follows such a predictable trajectory of the protagonist bitching about his life to patient listeners and then having those listeners tell him off in the second act. It’s a solid one-room drama, albeit one that never quite surprises or enlightens.”
That’s a fair assessment, I think. It’s an acquired taste to be sure.