Much will be made of the political commentary in Jim Field Smith’s Butter. Indeed, its potent messages are impossible to miss. What may get lost in the shuffle, I fear, is that it is first and foremost a spectacularly entertaining film, a wonderfully written, perfectly paced comedy brought to life by one of the year’s best ensemble casts. When I was not doubled over laughing, I was smiling enthusiastically, having more fun than a film about competitive butter carving should probably be allowed to deliver. The film’s incredible, go-for-broke whimsy removes much of the vitriol from the political messages, allowing the viewer a light, funny reprieve from the pathetic state of American politics. The result is one of the sharpest, deftest satires in recent memory, one that should be a rousing crowd pleaser if it finds an audience in the coming weeks.
Butter is set in rural Iowa, where competitive butter carving at State and County fairs isn’t just a major attraction, but a fact of life citizens take very seriously. No one is more involved in the world of butter than Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), whose husband Bob (Ty Burrell) is the reigning state Butter carving champion twelve years running. Laura coordinates the events, talks to the press, and even has her own butter-themed charity.
But this year, her world is turned upside down when officials at the fair ask Bob to take a year off, to give other contestants a chance. Bob, being a bit of a pushover, acquiesces, but Laura, outraged, won’t stand for it. Though she hasn’t carved before, she decides to enter herself to ensure the Pickler family will remain at the top. Her competition, though, comes from the unlikeliest of places: A ten-year-old orphan named Destiny (newcomer Yara Shahadi) who has just discovered her own incredible talent for butter sculpting.
The metaphors are not hard to spot. Laura, who preaches family and faith and the inherent goodness of small-town communities, is a terribly unlikable hypocrite interested only in proving her own self-worth. Laura represents a certain questionable sub-sect of American politics (something to do with tea), and the butter contest is simply a lavish allegory for how politicians like Laura operate.
Destiny is the film’s core protagonist, and her innocence and talent represent the true American ideal that Laura likes to believe she preaches. Destiny is a young African-American orphan passed from foster house to foster house; she has nothing to her name and has to achieve success through optimism and hard work alone, not through money or marriage or faith or a holier-than-thou presence. She represents the American Dream, and watching her innocence overwhelm Laura’s selfishness, even in something as petty and silly as a butter carving contest, is nothing less than sweet, sweet catharsis.
But enough about that. Butter is certainly a potent satire of and for our times, but it is first and foremost a comedy, and a darn good one at that. The Iowan atmosphere it builds is authentic and loving; we laugh with these people, not at them, so the film never seems cold-hearted or unpleasant (I should know; I was born in Des Moines).
The laughs come relentlessly and almost none of them falls flat; this is razor-sharp comedy, and what makes it work so well is the film’s willingness to go for broke, to put its gargantuan cast of characters in a series of increasingly odd situations and relationships. The film is absolutely bonkers at times, but it all works wonderfully, and can modulate to softer, gentler moments when needed. Destiny’s story, in fact, provides enough warm fuzzies to ground any amount of surrounding zaniness.
The key to the film’s success is its cast, filled top to bottom with actors and actresses I love doing terrific work; they bring these characters to life beautifully and deliver the comedy flawlessly.
With the possible exception of Juno, Jennifer Garner has never been better than she is here, funny and intimidating but still recognizably human. As her husband Bob, Ty Burrell is the quietest member of the ensemble, but his pathetic pushover nature is a perfect counterpoint to Garner’s intensity, producing a lot of big laughs along the way.
Ashley Greene, always the best part of the Twilight movies, is very funny as their rebellious daughter, a character who has no significant narrative purpose but is undeniably entertaining to watch. Olivia Wilde, meanwhile, continues her ascension through the ranks of Hollywood playing a misanthropic stripper Burell’s character has an affair with. I’ve really enjoyed Wilde in other films, but she rises to a new level here, proving she has some considerable comedic chops. She may have gotten the most consistently deafening laughs from my audience.
Moving away from the Pickler family, Yara Shahadi proves to be a pretty terrific find as Destiny. She has no trouble carrying the big dramatic moments, with a presence, comic timing, and undeniable likability rarely seen in child actors. Rob Corddry, a comedian I’ve always liked in what small parts he’s been given, is absolutely fantastic as her adoptive father. He’s hilarious, but more importantly displays a warmth and humanity that helps ground the film; I hope he gets more roles like this in the future. Alicia Silverstone does surprisingly solid work as Corddry’s husband, Hugh Jackman shows up for a few brief but screamingly funny scenes, and Kristin Schaal (Mel from Flight of the Conchords), incapable of being unfunny, nearly steals the show.
The cast is so strong that even if Butter had no aspirations beyond being a zany ensemble comedy, I still would have had a great time. Butter is endlessly entertaining, but its enjoyable nature also helps give it weight. It cuts straight to the core of certain political problems in this nation, but because of the lighthearted butter-carving context, it doesn’t come out as inflammatory or mean-spirited. It’s all in good fun, and though it comes from a specific point of view, the film is so easy to love that I can see people on both sides of the aisle embracing this message. In the year 2012, that may be a minor miracle. Butter is satire at its finest.
Butter opens theatrically on October 5th in limited release, but is now available through video-on-demand services. This review was originally published on November 13th, 2011, when the film played the Starz Denver Film Festival.