Butter Review [TIFF 2011]
Not quite salty enough to make this cinematic experience sweet, Butter is a wannabe dark comedy that may or may not be a veiled metaphor for the Republican Party’s bid for presidential office. It’s an intriguing idea to parallel the cut-throat world of butter carving competitions (yes, they do exist in real life) with the no-holds-barred arena of politics. Sadly, the comedic elements of Butter are just too soft to compare to other far funnier films of its ilk like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Election or To Die For.
Jennifer Garner stars as Laura Pickler, a cross between Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin. She’s married to Bob (Ty Burrell), Iowa’s “Elvis of Butter” who’s won the town’s annual butter carving contest for 15 years running with his stirring creations, including a life-size The Last Supper and his tribute to Schindler’s List. Laura, who truly believes that Bob’s place in Iowa society will take him all the way to the governor’s office, is incensed when the contest organizers ask him to step down in order to give newcomers a chance.
She decides to enter the contest in his place and finds herself pitted against a stripper (Olivia Wilde) looking to stick it to Laura and acquire the $600 that Bob owes her, a sweet 10-year-old butter prodigy (Yara Shahidi) being fostered by a kind left-leaning couple (Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry) and a Bob Pickler super-fan with no natural talent whatsoever (Kristen Schaal).
Laura ruthlessly pursues the butter carving championship title by any means necessary, even turning to a former flame turned creepy car salesman (Hugh Jackman) to help rig the competition with some sitcom-friendly hijinks.
Despite decent casting, Butter is a misfire mainly because it aspires to be something that it’s just not. Had this been played as a sweetly mild family drama with a few laughs it would be an okay way for Jennifer Garner fans to while away an afternoon at the theatre.
Unfortunately, it desperately wants to be a lacerating, sharp-toothed satire with a dark edge and while there are certainly a few jokes that tiptoe into the realm of “not politically correct,” they’re still pretty mild and far too calculated to be shocking.
It also doesn’t help that comedy isn’t exactly Ms. Garner’s forte. Here she way overplays her character, making Laura a cartoonish, mustache-twirling villain with no layers.
That may have been okay had screenwriter Jason A. Micallef really gone for the jugular and written Laura as a sinister force to be reckoned with rather than a blandly misguided trophy wife who says stupid things like “I’m sorry I was born tall and white and pretty and I haven’t sat in front of the TV eating pork rinds and soiling myself.” As it stands, Garner doesn’t have the goods to make Laura either the hero or the anti-hero of the story and the film suffers for it.
Wilde fares better as a punk rock stripper who likes to make dramatic exits on her BMX bike (perhaps one of my favourite gags in the film) but her character is underused and quickly lost in the sea of caricature-level performances from most of the rest of the cast.
Director Jim Field Smith seems wildly out of his league (coincidence that his last film was She’s Out Of My League?) in attempting to tame the unruly multiple tones present in the film. It swings from acerbically witty to raucous bathroom humour to after school special, sometimes all within one scene.
The film is brought to us by The Weinstein Company and one wonders if Harvey Weinstein had a hand in re-editing the film in order to make it more mainstream audience friendly (he’s reportedly famous for doing this) and the result is this messy mish-mash of styles and ideas that ultimately make Butter hard to digest.
Sadly, the comedic elements of Butter are just too soft to compare to other far funnier films of its ilk like Drop Dead Gorgeous.