Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Rob Corddry, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Yara Shahidi
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 5 Oct 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 5 Oct 2012 (General release); 2011)
A quirky subject inhabited by even quirkier characters: it’s the calling card for the indie comedy circa 2012. It’s become a borderline creative cliche, a shorthand way of arguing that you’re not the typical mainstream (insert genre here) and your cast are not playing the standard (insert overdone archetype here). From the child beauty pageant basis for Little Miss Sunshine to the food flavoring flare of Extract, trying to find humor in the obscure or eccentric has replaced actual humor and wit. We can mock those outside our societal norms because their obsessions/fetishes/passions are so much more “unusual” than everyone else’s.
In the new semi-serious laugher from She’s Out of My League‘s Jim Field Smith, the subject is competitive butter sculpting. Yet instead of focusing on the craft, the director decides to concentration on the crazies inhabiting this so-called sport… and for the most part, he discovers something worth celebrating. The film centers around the Pickler Family—fiery Red State Neo-Con Mom Laura (Jennifer Garner) and her meek, milquetoast husband Bob (Ty Burrell). He’s been the reigning champion of his local Iowa chapter of the State’s Butter Modeling Society, and it looks like, once again, he will walk away with the top prize. Hoping to inject new blood into the proceedings, the officials get Bob to agree to step aside. This enrages Laura, as she’s been living vicariously through her husband’s victories for years.
The solution? Laura decides to enter the competition herself. While few believe she has the creative chops to be successful, she surprises everyone with her skill. Of course, there are roadblocks on her path to a blue ribbon. The first is a little African America foster child named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) who is a wiz at art and sculpting. Then there’s the angry step-daughter (Ashley Greene) who wants nothing but failure for her domineering ‘parent.’ Then there is Brooke (Olivia Wilde), a stripper who’s staked a claim to Bob and wants $600, or Laura’s humiliation, as payback. Of course, our highly strung suburbanite has an ace up her sleeve in the person of ex-boyfriend and influential businessman Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman).
Butter is better than you think it will be. From the moment Jennifer Garner arrives onscreen, you get the distinct impression that a very British Smith is about to take the piss out of Middle America and its “By gosh, you betcha” mentality. Then the first F-bomb comes out of the otherwise prissy character’s mouth, and things shift radically. By the time Wilde arrives in her skimpy attire and come hither hatred, all bets are officially off. Instead, Butter turns into an intriguing is sometimes superficial character study, albeit one that eventually recognizes its intended audience and goes back to the window to wager some more. This is a film that’s not entirely confident in either its premise or its personalities, so instead, it just piles on, pretending that more will give the otherwise suspicious viewer its entertainment value’s worth.
For the most part, it does. We enjoy the dynamic between the latest in a long line of foster parents - Ethan and Jill Emmett. Essayed by Rob Corddry and a surprisingly effective Alicia Silverstone, there’s oddities to be found (New Age pronouncements, a fridge full of Soy-based products) but they turn out to be a genuinely loving and affectionate pair. The former ‘90s ‘It’ girl, now in her mid ‘30s, sparkles as the repressed housewife who wants to break free, but can’t find a way to do so. Thanks to Destiny and her way with animal fat, she discovers a true purpose. Elsewhere, Jackman does his best with a mere three minutes of screen time, while Wilde walks away with every scene she’s in. As for little Ms. Shahidi, she has the right balance of naturalism and knowing to keep the narrative from bowing to formula.
Oddly enough, it’s Garner who fails this otherwise funny film. She was far more villainous in Arthur, and made a much better martial foil in Juno. Here, she seems pinched, purposely repressed without every really building a recognizable foundation for same. We get that she is mean, manipulative, overachieving, distant, self-absorbed and smug, but we don’t get a genuine feeling of hate. Instead, it’s all feigned, like finding out that an infamous criminal was actually a charitable child. We want a baddie we can love to hate (Wilde nails that). Garner just feels like a fool being constantly set up to look the same, only to weasel her way out of the denouement and keep on going.
Smith is also responsible for some of the minor failures here. He has yet to find a way of balancing outside needs (backstory, character beats) with the main thrust of his narrative. We want more of the Butter Modeling Competition, to see how these otherwise ordinary humans come up with concepts like a full fat Schindler’s List or the Landing at Iwo Jima made out of rich, creamery bread spread. There’s none of the insider information, no link to when and how such competitions became a social spectacle. On the plus side, Smith’s work with the Emmetts and little Destiny is right on point. As a matter of fact, he could have removed the entire Pickler part of the script, transforming them in a plotpoint myth, and made the whole film out of his incubating brood.
Still, despite its slights, Butter finds a way to win us over. Perhaps it’s the inappropriate language peppered throughout, or the desire to give everyone involved both a pro and con comparison. We are supposed to root for Destiny and wish Laura back to the cockeyed cornfield she came from, but that’s not the real focus here. Instead, there are elements along the edges, aspects of both the Picklers and the Emmetts which would have made for a far more telling tale. In the end, however, this is the movie that Smith and his actors wanted to make, and in that regard, it works. Yes, we are still dealing with a quirky subject inhabited by an even quirkier set of players. But just like its namesake, everything is better with a little butter…even a slightly obvious indie comedy.