Movie Review

Mean humor, snide caricatures cause 'Butter' to curdle

The Hollywood ReporterOctober 4, 2012 

Jennifer Garner as Laura Pickler in Jim Field-Smith's film "Butter."


  • Butter C+ Cast: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Alicia Silverstone Director: Jim Field Smith Website: Length: 1 hour , 30 minutes Rating: R (language and sexual content)

Having a taste for “Butter” depends almost entirely on whether you find the comedy of condescension and ridicule a hoot or a very cheap form of amusement. This satire on self-righteous, homily-spewing Red Staters and the cutthroat world of butter carving trades almost entirely on making jokes at the expense of others, most of all an obsessed, venal woman who could pass as a kissin’ cousin to two prominent female Republicans of the pre-primary season (“Butter” was made in 2011).

Decidedly not a critics’ picture, “Butter” brandishes the sort of snide humor that plays well with a large public, but a fair slice of that audience could well be put off by the whiff of agenda.

The title of the first feature written by Jason Micallef and the second directed by Jim Field Smith (“She’s Out of My League”) refers to the competitive pastime of butter sculpting that consumes the lives of a sufficient number of Iowans to have made it a statewide sport.

The undisputed champion for 15 years running is Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), whose latest creation – a full-size rendering of The Last Supper – is considered such a masterpiece that he’s asked to step aside to give someone else a chance.

Furious at this blow to family eminence, Bob’s wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner), takes up the carving knife herself. Laura is the sort of prim, flag-waving, self-satisfied do-gooder whose pasted-on smile can’t disguise incisors ready to rip into anyone she finds wanting or threatening. When not on public view, Laura cusses like a David Mamet character and vents about every perceived threat to her position or worldview.

She finds no solace at home; Bob momentarily takes up with trampy, extortionist stripper Brooke (Olivia Wilde), who exerts an unhealthy influence on Laura’s already checked-out stepdaughter (Kristen Schaal).

But the most serious menace comes from an adorable 10-year-old girl with the loaded name of Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who has bounced from one foster family to another until winding up with locals (Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone).

Absurdly well-adjusted for her age and background, Destiny is revealed as the Mozart of butter carvers, a genius in an enterprise her new mom admits is “kinda rednecky.” Faced with likely defeat in both the regional and state competitions, where Destiny does remarkable work sculpting the Freedom Train, Laura resorts to deceit in league with a good-ol’-boy former flame (an amusing cameo by Hugh Jackman), revealing her whiny true self in the process.

Playing a thoroughly unpleasant character, Garner, who also co-produced, somewhat overdoes Laura’s phoniness and shrillness. That someone would become psychotically preoccupied by butter carving is part of the joke – that human beings are capable of becoming fixated on almost anything.

Wilde lives up to her name as the go-for-broke exotic dancer as dim as she is unlucky, while the rest of the cast, except for Shahidi, works in caricature mode.

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