TELLURIDE – If you were pitched the logline for a new comedy set in the competitive world of butter carving a specific type of movie would immediately come to mind. Most likely a formulaic romantic comedy with just enough bite for a PG-13 rating, but “safe” enough to air for years on cable. For the most part, that’s not what you get with Jim Field Smith’s “Butter” which debuted at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival Saturday night.
The British born Smith (best known stateside for helming “She’s Out of My League”) has teamed with screenwriter Jason A. Micallef to fashion a sweet farce that takes unexpected digs at conservative politics, racism, liberals and, yes, the possibly unhealthy passion for butter carving in some Midwestern states. The picture begins with Laura Pickler (co-producer Jennifer Garner) and Bob Pickler (“Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell) who are the first family of butter carving in Iowa. Bob has won the competition at the state fair for the past 15 years running with some out-of-the-box carvings such recreating Schindler’s List and The Last Supper, but the head of the carving association thinks it’s time he step aside to let other carvers enjoy the spotlight. Bob understands, but Laura has political aspirations for her very popular husband who is treated almost like a local rock star. When she realizes Bob is going to go through with the retirement against her wishes she decides to step into the fridge and start carving herself.
The film also has features a parallel storyline centered on Destiny (“Imagine That’s” Yara Shahidi), a 11-year-old foster child who has a unique and funny perspective on mostly Caucasian Iowa (or at least the Iowa the film depicts). Destiny has bounced from one home to another through little fault of her own, but her life starts to improve when she lands with the friendly Emmets (Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone). It’s during this stay that her artistic side starts to flourish and she gets a yearning (much to the shock of her well-educated new foster parents) to competitively carve. This newfound desire puts her right on a collision course with Ms. Laura Pickler and drives most of the story.
Garner could have gone a number of ways with the buttoned up Mrs. Pickler, but it’s easy to see the influence of Presidential Candidate and Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann in Laura. From the pearls to the sleeveless cocktail dresses and the every so slight Minnesota accent, the controversial political figure was no doubt an inspiration. It’s a funny performance that starts off as a stereotype, but finally opens up to a more three-dimensional character the audience can actually sympathize with as the movie goes on. Shahidi shows nice comic timing as Destiny, but it’s the rest of the ensemble that really help the picture keep it’s comedic footing. Most notably, Olivia Wilde who pretty much steals the show as a slutty stripper trying to get a little bit of revenge on both Picklers. Corddry is sharp, but also warm and pleasantly effective as Destiny’s foster dad. Hugh Jackman has some brief scenes as a goofball former flame of Laura’s which plays against his traditional type. Ashley Greene, appearing in her first real comedy, surpasses expectations as the Pickler’s older teenage daughter and Kristen Schaal also has some nice moments as a Pickler fan who discovers she just doesn’t have the carving chops of her idol.
In many ways, “Butter” has a lot of familiar elements of comedies such as “Juno,” “Waitress” and a few Christopher Guest mini-classics (“Best in Show” comes to mind), but the unexpected political jabs and the butter carving culture make it more original than it may appear at first glance.
“Butter” currently has no set release date, but will also screen at the Toronto Film Festival next week.
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