‘Butter’ a scattered, messy, sometimes enjoyable Midwestern satire

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Butter

Directed by Jim Field Smith

Written by Jason Micallef

USA, 2011

The new independent comedy Butter has a lot of intriguing ideas floating around, but is never content to latch onto just one and see it through to completion. Or, maybe the issue is that Butter would need to be about 30 minutes to an hour longer if it wanted to satisfactorily deal with each of its subplots. As a 90-minute lark attempting to gleefully mock 21st-century Midwestern stereotypes, Butter boasts a few solid supporting performances and laughs, but the movie bites off far more than it can chew.

Yara Shahidi plays Destiny, a quiet but intelligent African-American orphan who’s moved from foster home to foster home over the last few years. In her latest home, she discovers a surprising artistic knack in the form of butter carvings and sculptures. Encouraged by her well-meaning if slightly awkward parents (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone), Destiny enters into the annual butter sculpture competition. Despite her clear talent, Destiny soon finds that she has a bitter rival in the form of Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), the wife of the reigning butter-sculpture champion (Ty Burrell), who’s been asked to step down from competing after winning 15 years in a row. Laura is, if nothing else, fiercely dedicated and obsessed to keeping the title in the Pickler name, and will do anything to win.

The core of this movie is the relationship that Destiny has with her new foster parents, Ethan and Jill. You might not expect it from his hilarious work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Childrens Hospital, but Corddry delivers the best performance in Butter, partly thanks to the fact that screenwriter Jason Micallef doesn’t treat the foster father-daughter connection as cartoonishly or outrageously as he does almost every other character and plot. Ethan seems most like an audience surrogate, even if he’s as likely to assume the people around him are Southern-fried hick stereotypes. Corddry shines here, a  sincere and funny presence. He does well even with meager material; Micallef’s script rarely knows what it wants to focus on, making Butter seem very scattered.

In the first half of Butter, it seems like Destiny and Laura are going to be dual protagonists; they even share voiceover narration duties. But while Micallef introduces various subplots, such as Laura’s husband Bob and his dalliance with Brooke, a local stripper (Olivia Wilde), it’s as if he gets bored with them, or distracted by the journey Destiny is on, to give them any weight in the second half. Director Jim Field Smith doesn’t really inject any style into the film, so it’s on the cast and screenplay to do the heavy lifting. The ensemble is certainly impressive, but so few of the actors get enough to do to feel like they’re dominating the story in the right way.

Garner is fine if too excessive and over-the-top as Laura, a Stepford Wife crossed with Sarah Palin (it’s hard not to see this story as a would-be satire on the 2008 presidential election). The problem with the character isn’t Garner, but that she’s so obnoxious, so unlikable that it’s hard to handle watching her huff and puff her way across Iowa. What’s more, Micallef has the gall to ask us to sympathize with Laura in the third act, in spite of her otherwise atrocious and hiss-worthy behavior. Garner’s a good actress, but she can’t sell such a radical shift in the character’s temperament.

Burrell has a few funny moments; however, Bob becomes something of a non-entity, a type of set dressing, after the first 30 minutes. The ripple effect here is that Wilde, who’s at least enjoying the opportunity to play a louder, brasher character than she usually does, feels wasted. The same goes for Ashley Greene, as Bob’s willful and selfish daughter Kaitlin. Of all the various subplots, Kaitlin’s rebellious streak meshing with Brooke’s obsession with getting paid back by Bob goes nowhere the fastest. The runner-up is Laura’s choice to conspire with a high-school beau (Hugh Jackman, goofy in his five minutes of screen time), which seems like it existed solely to get Wolverine in this movie to raise audience interest.

Butter wants to be too many things: a modern satire of American ideals, a portrait of a nuclear family gone to pasture, a more serious look at a black girl’s attempt to fit into an inherently white neighborhood and class system. It’s not bad for a script like this to be ambitious, but while we can applaud Jason Micallef trying to cover all of these topics, the actual screenplay doesn’t hit the mark often enough. There are sparks, glimmers of freshness, of wit, and of emotion in Butter, but you can’t grab onto them quickly enough before they slip out of your reach.

— Josh Spiegel

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