'Butter': Political Satire Melts
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Like the pricier and more fragile selections in the dairy case, political satire has but brief days of freshness. "Butter" stars Jennifer Garner as a maniacal can-do heartland housewife hell-bent on regaining glory and upward momentum after her husband's 15-year string of Iowa State Fair butter carving championships sees him retire from the field. Garner's Laura Pickler, a purse-lipped climber with dreams of political ambitions built from butter glory and fame, thus vows to enter, keeping the trophies and the name recognition in the family. Her competition is a foster kid, Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who may have finally found a form of self-expression in butter carving even as she blooms at a new home. Pickler thus has to face down Destiny -- in many senses of that phrase -- and preserve her social status and idea of her perfect life, and she'll do anything to win.
It's hard to not hear a Sarah Palin imitation (or an imitation of an imitation) in Garner's pinched, pursed delivery of phrases: "The Mastery in Butter Board has betrayed us like Judas Iscariot himself." And as Laura's more insane desires brush up against Destiny's simpler ones -- complicated even more so when Brooke (Olivia Wilde), a stripper who Laura's husband, Bob (Ty Burrell), inadvisably but understandably sought solace from, enters the fray -- she goes more and more all-out to win.
Still, in our hyper-accelerated news age, Sarah Palin jokes aren't funny anymore (or, alternately, aren't any more funny than the idea of Sarah Palin). After playing the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 and clearly crafted to evoke the 2008 election, it's easy to see "Butter" as certainly less-than-fresh, if not, bluntly, rancid. There's a broader theme here -- one about public redemption, public reinvention and public image, one that plays out best in the scene where the butter carving competitors address the crowd at the preliminaries -- but every time the film brushes against something smart and sharp, it skitters away like it's brushed a hot stove.
With its mix of small-town social studies farce and big-scale political satire about ambition and scandal, "Butter" reminds you of other, better films like "Election" and "Nashville," although director Jim Field Smith is no Payne or Altman. While much of Destiny's narration consists of tee-hee mock-shockers like, "These crackers are weird," and, "White people are weirdoes," the film's deck is clearly stacked in her favor and against Garner's squinty force of nature. There's not much ambiguity here, and the film could have benefited from it, as the script's vinegar goes sickly sweet in the closing moments. Jason A. Micallef's script wants to go for the jugular, but the film muzzles itself down to a slobbery smooch on the cheek instead.
There's things to like in "Butter": Shahidi is a winning presence when she's not spouting too-cute dialogue, Burrell's fumbling, flailing, failed-family-man shtick is still funny, and Wilde's screw-you sex bomb has something horrible and flinty and hilarious inside: "You're going to let your wife come between us, Bob? I thought you had morals." Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone show charm and pluck as Destiny's earnest new foster parents. The production design and cinematography create a world for these characters, and a world that looks great. And Garner is game, but the part is underwritten; Laura Pickler fails her, and not vice versa. And Garner's performance, written large, is the problem as a whole with the film: In some places, "Butter" is laid on too thick, and in other places it's spread too thin, and it never quite develops a flavor of its own.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.