If Butter, the new comedy from director Jim Field Smith, were like the dairy sculpting characters it follows, it would have a lot going for it. Like the prepared sculptor it has a nice sturdy base to work off of, an interesting model in mind, and the best carving tools that money can buy. The problem is that it’s working in a refrigerator set at room temperature.
Set in small-town Iowa, the movie centers on dual characters, Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) and Destiny (Yara Shahidi), fighting to win one of the area’s biggest contests: the state butter sculpting competition. Laura is the wife of Bob Pickler (Ty Burell), a multiple-time champion who has been forced to step down in order to give someone else a chance, and Laura strives to fill the gap because it’s the only thing she has in her life. Conversely, Destiny is a child of the foster care system with a natural knack for butter sculpting who gets taken in by a nice white couple (Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone) who want to give her the life she deserves. But while Destiny is in there for fun, Laura is competing to win and won’t let anything stand in her way.
Like Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in Election, Garner’s Laura Pickler festers under your skin in the best way, as she creates an engaging and hateful, but not irredeemable villain for the movie. On the other side of the story is the young Shahidi’s Destiny, and she gives one of the best child performances we’ve seen in a while. It would have been easy for Smith or the writer Jason A. Micallef to make her a cute, overly-precocious kid, but Shahidi makes her grounded and mature, as one would imagine a kid from the system would be. The supporting cast is equally as good, from Olivia Wilde’s foul-mouthed, bike-riding stripper/hooker Brooke to Kristen Schaal’s overly-ambitious, cat-loving amateur butter sculptor Carol-Ann Stevenson. The problem, however, is that there are just too many of them.
Butter is only 90 minutes long but feels overstuffed, with a huge ensemble of characters jammed around the plot about Laura and Destiny's rivalry. Hugh Jackman plays Laura’s high school sweetheart-turned-car dealer in the movie, but his role in the plot is so minimal that you wonder if his character’s traits couldn’t have been combined with another’s to create a composite person that would take up less space. There’s a plot line dedicated to Laura and Bob’s daughter Kaitlen falling in love with Brooke, and while the scenes are kind of funny they don’t add enough to be necessary. There’s more than enough interesting stuff happening at the core of the story, but the movie seems to be a victim of low attention spans.
Political satire in disguise, the entire film basically making fun of the 2008 presidential election, Butter respectably doesn’t hide its bias (remember: the Barack Obama stand-in and protagonist is a young, pure African American newcomer named Destiny), but does come on a bit too strong. It lacks subtlety to the point that you can practically replace the word “butter” with “president” and still make the exact same movie and even Laura goes as far as to suggest multiple times that butter sculpting could be her and her husband’s entry into the political world. As a consequence the script comes across as lazy, as making the movie just a bit coyer would have added a layer of cleverness to the other positive things that it has going for it, and would have benefited everything as a result.
And while I don’t mind a filmmaker having a political agenda (particularly when they are so upfront about it), it does become a problem when it begins to affect the way that the audience perceives the characters – particularly the protagonists. Laura is painted as a fundamentalist neo-conservative with a win-or-die mentality (even if she’s going up against an 11-year-old girl) and she makes for an easily target, but by the end of the movie everything becomes so one-sided that it actually ends up being kind of mean-spirited, particularly because the script goes out of its way to try and show the softer side of Laura’s character before doubling down on crushing her dreams. While I wish to avoid spoilers, the final line in the film is literally about an attack on Laura, and while its dressed up to be cute, it actually just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Butter has strong moments and has more than a few good jokes, but as a whole it struggles to keep its footing. Perhaps it could have worked better as a miniseries or television show, as there are more than a few interesting characters in the mix that you want to see more of, but the movie has trouble committing and it suffers as a result.