Review: ‘Butter’ features Jennifer Garner, big laughs, pointed political metaphors

We have reached an interesting and, frankly, depressing place in modern political dialogue, where even trying to tackle the subject guarantees that part of your audience will walk away angry.  My first political memory involves the Watergate trials, so it’s little wonder I’ve grown up in an increasingly cynical political atmosphere.  I do wonder sometimes if it’s even possible to fix things at this point, or if we are simply at the point where there will never be something like a middle ground again.

We ran a piece here about the statement that Harvey Weinstein sent along to be ready before the public premiere of “Butter” at the Toronto Film Festival last week, and while it drew some big laughs in the room and got some play in the press, I felt like it was yet another set of battle lines being drawn.  And while there are many things I like about the film, which is definitely worth seeing, there’s a chance that its merits will be ignored in the conversation over the easy targets that the movie singles out, especially in the climate as we’re gearing up towards the 2012 election season.

“Butter” was a Black List script a few years ago, acclaimed by many, and Jason A. Micallef certainly has an ear for comic dialogue and broad character.  Set against the cutthroat world of Iowa butter carving competitions, it tells the story of Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), the wife of Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), who has held the title of State Champion for fifteen years in a row.  Laura has shrewdly used Bob’s success to build an empire for herself of self-serving glory, and when Bob is told by the official committee of the contest that they want him to step aside and let someone else have a shot at the title, she goes, to put it politely, f**king apes**t.

At the same time, several other contestants step forward with their own reasons to want to win.  Kristen Schaal plays the leader of Bob’s fan club who wants to emulate her hero.  Olivia Wilde plays a local stripper who has very personal reasons to want revenge against Laura.  And then there’s Destiny, a young black girl played by Yara Shahidi, who has spent her life shuttled from home to home in the foster care system, leading her to conclude that white people are crazy.  From the first moment she sees butter carving, she’s drawn to it, and there’s a lovely moment early on where she meets Bob and he recognizes a genuine artist in her.  Her new foster parents, Jill (Alicia Silverston) and Ethan (Rob Corddry), are determined to give Destiny a real home for the first time in her young life, and they support her in her decision to go head-to-head with Laura, who is determined to keep the title in the family by becoming the new champion herself.

What’s going to be interesting is watching how people overreact immediately to what they see as the political symbolism in the film.  I have no doubt that the right wing will believe this to be a direct attack on them, as will the Tea Party, which I see as occupying a wing all their own these days.  However, if you want to read this strictly based on what’s onscreen, it looks more like a reaction the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama race than anything else.  A woman’s husband reaches the end of his eligibility for a race, so she decides to run herself, and then suddenly sees her chances hindered when a younger minority candidate shows up who is a natural in front of a crowd.  Sound familiar?  So if this uses a Democratic primary as initial source material, how can this be read as an attack on the right?

Because these days, everyone feels like they’re being attacked all the time, and that’s the problem.  That’s when conversation ends.  “Butter” is about the way power and influence can twist someone, and the way competition can bring out the best in others, and no matter where the idea started, those are universal ideas.  What I wish is that the film wasn’t quite as specific in its metaphor as it is, because I think there is some real juice in the way the cast attacks the material, and director Jim Field Smith has a nice light pop cartoon touch.  It’s an enjoyable sit, and there are many scenes that are fall-down funny.  Olivia Wilde does some of the most outrageous work of her career here, and again, there’s a real-world parallel when her real name is revealed as Brooke that may earn some cheap laughs, but which would work better without the shot.  Between this and “God Bless America,” I’m guessing Diablo Cody’s going to have a number of uncomfortable moments in movie theaters in the near future.

I would say that if you can look past the surface comparisons to real life, “Butter” works best as pure comedy.  Ashley Greene, playing Laura’s step-daughter, has some very funny scenes, many of them involving Wilde, while Rob Corddry reveals a warm side that we haven’t seen from him often on film.  Kristen Schaal, who seriously seems to have arrived here from another planet, brings her own lovely loopy sensibility to her role, and Hugh Jackman plays perhaps the most ridiculous character of his career, to good effect.  Garner is the star of the film, though, as well as one of the producers, and I can see why she wanted to make it.  I’ve interviewed Garner many times, and visited several sets to watch her work, and as far as I can tell, she’s exactly what you think she is.  Preposterously sweet and very professional, and I’m sure she is aware that the only way to expand your range is to play against type.  Laura Pickler is a smiling monster in the film, and Garner attacks the role with real zeal.  She’s balanced by the natural charm and grace of Shahidi, who is very good as Destiny.  The wee bit of real heart in the film comes mainly from the way Shahidi plays with Corddry and Silverstone as her new foster parents, and the sweetness of their material definitely takes some of the sting out of the rest of the film.

Do I think “Butter” lands every punch it throws?  No, not really.  I think it’s an entertaining film, but I don’t think it offers up any particular insight into the way power works or where we are at the moment.  I’m glad I saw it, and the screening at the Roy Thompson Hall where I saw it was particularly giddy thanks to the presence of the cast and the charged atmosphere in the room.  “Butter” will definitely connect with audiences, but the question remains, will people be able to see past what they see as a personal attack in order to make it to the universal laughs?  Time will tell.

The film will have a limited run in LA this fall before a real release in the spring of 2012.