Jim Field Smith’s Butter could have been a scathing political satire. It could have been a wicked dark comedy. It could have even been a heartwarming family drama. Instead, Butter tries to be all of these things and only manages to squeeze out occasional bits of humor and heart from any of them. The film is endlessly frustrating, consistently disappointing, and one where every missed opportunity is a stinging reminder of how this could have been a great movie.
Butter opens like a political satire with Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background and red, white, and blue balloons and streamers in the foreground. We’re introduced to Laura (Jennifer Garner), the wife of Iowa’s reigning butter-carving champion Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell). She ambitiously and delusionally sees his success at carving butter into sculptures as the road to the White House. When Bob is asked by the butter-carving committee to step down so that someone else can have a shot at the title, Laura becomes apoplectic. After verbally emasculating Bob in front of his teenage daughter (Ashley Greene), Bob heads to a strip club and ends up having sex with Brooke (Olivia Wilde) in exchange for $600 that she never receives. Enraged, Laura decides to go for the championship herself and doesn’t see anyone standing in her way until Destiny (Yara Shahidi) comes along. Destiny is an orphaned 10-year-old black girl who’s adopted by kindly middle-class white people (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) and finds that she has a gift for butter-carving.
The clear parallel to Laura and Destiny’s competition is the 2008 Democratic Primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It’s rich material for a cutting satire which says Presidential politics has no more substance than a silly butter-carving competition. Throw in outsized personalities, parodies of the Clintons and Obama, and maybe even the media frenzy surrounding the election, and you could have something clever and special, but Butter misses all of it. From the start, it muddles its metaphors by casting Laura not in the mold of an experienced, pragmatic veteran like Hillary Clinton, but in the mold of easy target Sarah Palin. Destiny is a fresh-faced and charming African-American contender previously unknown to the public, and that’s where the comparison to Obama ends. There’s so much room for a sharp and funny satire and it’s depressing to see those opportunities cast aside.
Smith also takes a shot at bringing some dark comedy to the film and finds some sporadic success on this front. Butter could have gotten some more great jokes out of the butter sculptures the characters create, but the movie pulls so many punches that you wonder why it even bothered getting in the ring. The script wants to keep the foul-mouthed Brooke in the picture but can’t decide on a reason for her to be there. Does she want her $600 and then she’ll leave the Picklers alone? Or is she driven by a bizarre vendetta towards Laura that is never convincingly explained? Wilde has never been sexier and Bob’s reactions to Brooke are hilarious (even though Burrell is basically just playing his Phil Dunphy character from Modern Family), but there’s simply no reason for Wilde’s character to be in this movie.
Then Butter attempts the uplifting, dulled-edged family dramedy route as popularized by films like Little Miss Sunshine. In her voiceovers, Destiny delivers flat jokes about distrusting white people, and then she learns that they’re not so bad. Her storyline seems ripe for an Election-style comic naivety but instead it’s bland and mawkish. The tone of Destiny’s storyline is completely different than the tone of Laura and Brooke’s. Corddry provides the sole saving grace of Destiny’s plotline. He manages to deliver laughs but it’s also a surprisingly warm and kind performance we’ve never seen from him before.
Along with Burrell, Wilde, and Corddry, other fun performances are littered throughout the fiml. Garner could have done a lot more with Laura if the script hadn’t confined the character to imitating Sarah Palin, and the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Silverstone. But Hugh Jackman gets some great moments in his few scenes as a used-car salesman who almost married Laura before she decided to go with Bob, and Kristen Schaal steals a few scenes as a nerdy fan of Bob and Laura who decides to enter the competition (and who ends up creating one of the funnier sculptures in the movie).
There are just enough solid performances and good jokes to keep Butter from being a bad movie. But every time I laughed, I realized how long it had been from the last time I had done so. More often, I was reminded of how wildly the movie swung between comic styles and I grew frustrated at why Butter couldn’t pick one and run with it.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far:
- The Artist
- The Awakening
- A Dangerous Method
- The Descendants
- Friends with Kids
- God Bless America
- The Hunter
- I’m Carolyn Parker
- The Ides of March
- Into the Abyss
- Killer Joe
- Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
- The Skin I Live In
- Sleeping Beauty
- Ten Year