Director: Jim Field Smith
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry, Kristen Schaal, Hugh Jackman, Ashley Greene, Phyllis Smith
A recognizable cast does nothing except raise the level of viewer befuddlement attached to “Butter,” a heartland-set train wreck of purported satire. Set against the true-to-life backdrop of the Iowa State Fair’s annual butter-carving contest, this sluggish, unfunny and poorly stitched together tale of competitive impulse run amok is too leavened and scattershot to qualify as a dark comedy, and not smart or pointed enough to score as a lampoon. Instead it merely lurches from half-baked comedic conceit to conceit, indulging a painful-to-watch lead performance by Jennifer Garner.
With his sculptures of “Schindler’s List,” Newt Gingrich astride a horse, and Christ’s Last Supper, Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) is Iowa’s reigning butter carver, 15 years running. When the powers-that-be figure it might be time for someone else to finally have a chance, he graciously steps aside. But his wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner), possesses a manic ambition, and views the butter-carving crown as somehow “theirs.” Indignant, she decides to enter the competition herself.
Unlikely opposition arrives by way of Bob’s affable number-one fan, Carol-Ann (Kristen Schaal); Brooke (Olivia Wilde), a bad-girl stripper with whom Laura just caught Bob having a one-time fling; and Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a preternaturally mature 10-year-old African-American girl just adopted by Julie and Ethan Emmet (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry). Laura is hellbent on winning at all costs, and when a ruling in the country competition doesn’t go her way and she senses her chance slipping away, Laura recruits some nefarious assistance from her high school ex, Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman, channeling some great himbo charm), now a dimwitted but successful used car salesman.
Taken in darker directions, “Butter” could conceivably summon up recollections of something like “Election,” or even “Red Rock West” — regionally specific tales of people overwhelmed by snowballing circumstances. If tightened narratively and executed more slickly, it could at least rate comparative mention to the best of Christopher Guest. As is, though, “Butter” just seems like a strange and unconvincing blend of “Sugar & Spice” and “Lovely & Amazing,” with a side serving of political commentary that is less veiled than toothless, and without meaningful follow-through. Apart from the admitted originality of its setting, whatever verve and pop was originally part of Jason Micallef’s script, the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship 2008 award winner, is undone by various editorial nips and tucks, and the hapless oversight of director Jim Field Smith (“She’s Out of My League”).
“Butter” is confusingly edited throughout, likely reflecting the behind-the-scenes turmoil over a movie that was completed some time ago and originally scheduled for release this spring before being yanked from schedules only a couple weeks before its bow, after it had already been screening for entertainment journalists. One assumes there was initially a reason for the inclusion of the character of Kaitlen (Ashley Greene), Bob’s daughter and Laura’s stepdaughter, but there’s scarcely one now. A big part of the movie’s problem, though, seems to lie in its unwillingness to cast Garner (also a producer on the project) more fully into the role of a shrill villainess, and invest narrative time elsewhere. Ergo, “Butter” seems unfocused.
It’s also chock full of thunderously false moments that betray a lack of rigorous conceptual thought and honesty. Case in point: before flashing back in time, the film opens at a glad-handing political-type rally, where a short biographical video plays to a friendly and enthusiastic crowd. In it, Laura is identified as “Bob’s second wife,” which makes absolutely no sense, other than as a needless way to try to identify and explain potential tension between her and Kaitlen. There are a handful of other examples of this lazy, sloppy filmmaking, too.
In terms of the performances, Shahidi (“Imagine That,” the forthcoming “Alex Cross”) is actually quite good, and, as mentioned, Jackman is able to locate an incandescence in dim bulb Boyd. But Garner communicates in scrunched faces and mimeographed stridence, never able to make Laura either a real character or a deliciously camp, larger-than-life antagonist. The idea of the lithe Wilde as an unhinged stripper is certainly not a bad thing, and she has a couple crackling scenes, but they never feel tethered to “Butter”‘s main story, just part of some fanciful grab-bag of characters sprinkled over this melted mess.
Written by: Brent Simon