Reviews

A Melting Narrative Reduces 'Butter' to a Puddle

Destiny is clearly the character we want to root for -- the film should have been structured around her bittersweet attempt to win the butter sculpting competition while finally securing a place with a family after several failed foster care placements.


Butter

Director: Jim Field Smith
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Rob Corddry, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Yara Shahidi
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-12-04

Butter is a movie that arrived with great promise, between its solid ensemble cast and its aim of lightly parodying a niche competitive field. Unfortunately, it's a film with a scattered narrative focus -- the story doesn't have a central point-of-view, and as a result, it sags like a butter sculpture removed from its cold room.

The movie opens with a voice-over from Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), who strides onto a stage with her husband, Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), as she launches her candidacy for public office. Then we jump back in time a year, learning that Bob is a champion butter sculptor who is pushed aside because he has won the county competition too many times. Bob quietly agrees, but overbearing Laura can't abide the slight and decides to enter the next competition and uphold their family honor. Why she never competed before, given the level of skill she displays, is never explained.

Unsurprisingly, Bob is unhappy with his wife, and he meets stripper Brooke Swinkowski (Olivia Wilde), who has sex with him in his vehicle for a price. Laura somehow knows what's happening -- it's not clear if Bob has just met Brooke or if they've been fooling around for a while -- and smashes her vehicle into his in the parking lot outside the strip club. Inexplicably, no one is seriously hurt, but there's a throwaway joke about Bob injuring his penis.

Meanwhile, Julie and Ethan Emmet (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry) have taken in ten-year-old Destiny (Yara Shahidi) as a foster child, and we learn that she is a child prodigy when it comes to butter sculpting. Destiny threatens to ruin Laura's shot at winning the championship, and Brooke joins the fun to mess with Laura because Bob still owes her $600. Local butter sculpting hanger-on Carol-Ann Stevenson (Kristen Schaal) provides a potential wild card in the competition.

Destiny is introduced with a voice-over too, and from that point on, it's not clear whose story this really is. Laura was introduced first, leading us to believe that we should care if she's capable of changing her ways, but Destiny is clearly the character we want to root for -- the film should have been structured around her bittersweet attempt to win the competition while finally securing a place with a family after several failed foster care placements. Yara Shahidi is wonderful in the role, and Rob Corddry proves he can soften his acerbic personality to play the part of a caring father. The scene in which he gives Destiny a pep talk before she signs up for the competition perfectly showcases the chemistry between the two.

The rest of the cast handles their parts well, too: Jennifer Garner is a pitch-perfect ice queen, while Ty Burrell plays a character not far removed from the cluelessness of his Phil Dunphy on Modern Family. In the end, the problem isn't with the acting, it's with the way the story meanders through several plot points that don't feel connected. For example, there are a couple funny scenes involving Brooke's attempts to extract her $600 from Bob, but it's never clear how entering the butter sculpting competition helps her achieve that goal (she doesn't even try to do a good job, so she's not hoping to get prize money). She also tries to seduce the Picklers' daughter, but that doesn't go anywhere either.

Hugh Jackman shows up for a few scenes as a dopey former boyfriend of Laura who she enlists to sabotage Destiny's final sculpture. Unfortunately, the scene with him that sets up the showdown between Laura and Destiny doesn't make much sense.

Destiny is given a few funny lines in her voice-over, and it occurred to me that the film should have opened and closed with her, not with Laura's obnoxious ambitions. We should have been introduced to this bizarre world of competitive butter sculpting through her eyes, via her spot-on observations.

That thought was driven home in the several deleted and extended scenes found on this Blu-ray disc. One of them offers a conversation between the Emmets, with Julie expressing her reservations about becoming a mother, before the camera pans over the fence to show Destiny listening in the side yard. That kind of moment should have driven the narrative.

The only other bonus feature on this disc is a gag reel full of cast members flubbing their lines and laughing. It would have been nice to have a commentary track or a featurette that delves into this film's history -- the script placed highly on the infamous annual Black List -- but perhaps the weak extras are indicative of how much effort the studio wanted to put behind this mediocre film.

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