Review: Butter – Sweet and salty, but mostly sour

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ButterThe new indie film Butter is about the competitors in the “Mastery of Butter” contest; a competition where contestants create works of art carved out of hundreds of pounds of the creamy cooking condiment.  This dark comedy blends sweetness with salty humor, but in the end the laughs are spread too thin to be very tasty.

In a small farming community in Iowa, the residents take their fairs and butter carving seriously. Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) is a local celebrity and the reigning king of the local butter carvers, and while he is a meek and mild champion his wife Laura (Jennifer Garner) is more of a crazy stage-mom than a loving spouse.

Laura is cold and manipulative and she has gotten used to the glow of the spotlight that has shone on her husband, and she plans to use his popularity to transition into a political career.  She looks at her husband’s accomplishments as her own and revels in the power she thinks comes from his position as “Master of Butter.”

Jennifer Garner, who used to be one of the top action-actresses in the genre, seems to be completely reinventing herself of late, playing a mid-western housewife in roles from Juno to The Odd Life of Timothy Green. She’s a fine actress and I appreciate that she’s a Mom now, but as a fan I’m hoping she still has another action hero role in her.

The not-so-buttery couple has a huge fight when Bob is asked to step down as a competitor and become a judge instead, thereby allowing others to have a chance to win the butter competition. The carving king takes solace in the “arms” of Brooke (Olivia Wilde from TRON: Legacy), a stripper who thinks Bob is rolling in dough and sees dollar signs if she can hook him into having sex with her.

ButterA side-story involves Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a little black orphan girl who is shuttled from orphanage to foster home until she finally ends up with some decent foster-parents (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone). She is a talented young artist who shows an aptitude for sculpting butter and decides she will compete in the next Mastery of Butter competition.

Laura decides that if Bob can’t compete in the butter contest that she will do it herself and a scorned Brooke decides to show up just to aggravate the uppity butter queen.  All ends meet when Destiny, Laura, Brooke and a butter groupie, Carol (Kristen Schaal from The Daily Show), go head –to-head in the big competition.

There is also a weird cameo appearance by Hugh Jackman as Laura’s high-school flame, Boyd Bolton, who is now a used car salesman. He helps Laura screw-over her competitors and although Jackman does a good job in this role, it was a little strange seeing him in this movie. (On the plus side, this is probably the closest fanboys will ever get to a Woverine/ Elektra team-up on the big screen.)

ButterButter is said to be an allegory of the 2008 election that saw Barack Obama elected President, but whether writer Jason Micallef intended that comparison or not, I think you really have to really stretch your imagination to make that connection (Destiny would be Obama, Laura would be Palin, Bob would be McCain?)

In the right hands, Butter could have been a very nice film. But director Jim Field Smith can’t quite seem to get a grasp on this slippery material. For every witty line and satirical scene that works (and there are several), there are two more that fall flat. Even though the very talented cast is fantastic, the narrative and editing are so clunky that the performances alone can’t save it.

If you love quirky small town comedies like Bernie, Cedar Rapids and Young Adult, or if you like the Christopher Guest mockumentary films like Best in Show, then you might find Butter to your taste -but it is not nearly as good as any of those other similar films.  Grade: 5/10

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