Review: ‘Butter’ Is Better as Basic Comedy, Not Biting Satire

By  · Published on October 5th, 2012

Editor’s note: With Butter finally hitting theaters tomorrow, here’s a re-run of our AFI FEST review, originally published on November 8, 2011, to spread all over your movie theater popcorn.

Jim Field Smith’s Butter has been packaged and sold as its own consumable commodity – as some sort of smart, politically-minded satire. Butter is certainly funny in spats, but smart satire it is not, as there are no hard lessons taught or learned within the film. It may be too easy to say that Butter goes soft by its end – but the wording works here, both in terms of a mildly clever food pun and as an actual critique of how the film flip-flops with its tone and message before settling on an easy conclusion. The world of competitive butter-carving is hilarious and bizarre, a fine setting for a straight comedy that culminates with a character incredulously summing up its ridiculousness – “you put it on toast!” – but everything in Smith’s film is just too obvious to transcend basic laughs.

Butter is set in the world of competitive butter-carving, specifically the world of butter carvers who make their bread (sorry) through the Iowa State Fair system, working their way up through county competitions to finally take the entire pie during the statewide fair. Ty Burrell’s Bob Pickler is the reigning champ (one of his fans exuberantly declares his life-size Last Supper to be “better than the original”). But Bob’s talent makes it hard for anyone else to rise up in the butter-carving world, so when the overseeing butter government (sure) asks him to step down and “give something back,” it makes sense. But while it doesn’t make sense that Bob obliges this request, any confusion over his choice is replaced instead by blind rage from his wife Laura (an admirably determined Jennifer Garner). Distraught over having wasted fifteen years of her life supporting Bob and his butter, Laura decides to stick it to him (and everyone else) and enter the competition herself. It’s too bad for Laura that there’s also an orphaned upstart with more talent in her tiniest trowel than Laura has in her entire body looking to get her hands greasy in the competition.

Young Yara Shahidi plays the last-name-less orphan Destiny (gee, thanks, social services), a real cute kid with a wee acid-tongued streak that becomes enamored with butter-carving around the same time her new foster parents (played with unexpected sweetness by Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry) become enamored with her. The organic Emmets don’t balk when Destiny asks for butter to carve, encouraging her somewhat redneck-y new talent all the way to the county competition, where she’ll face off against the uptight Laura, a deranged mix of old school Barbie doll and Sarah Palin.

It’s likely that Laura would be dismayed by any sort of competition, but the three fellow carvers she has to go against during county really steam her greens. Of course, there’s Destiny, an adopted African-American of all things (emphasis and shock, Laura’s own), who seems impossible to beat, what with her raw talent, sweet smile, and speech about American freedom. Add in the Picklers’ biggest fan (a game-as-ever Kristen Schaal) and the stripper who is bent on destroying the Pickler clan (Olivia Wilde as, quite plainly, you’ve never seen her before), and the stage should surely be set for cinematic fireworks. Right?

Jason A. Micallef’s script popped up on 2008’s Black List of best unproduced screenplays kicking it around Hollywood and, while Micallef hits funny beats (though the film is about half as funny as it should be) and has crafted a cadre of off-kilter characters, the script’s flow and some of its very mechanics are deeply flawed. Whole sequences just don’t make sense – and pivotal ones, too, bits that include Laura crashing headlong into Bob’s infidelity (something not even remotely hinted at before) or Destiny’s crucial first introduction to the world of butter-carving (how, pray tell, she ended up at the Iowa State Fair is simply never explained). There are also a number of occurrences and lines that feel thrown in just for shock value – like Destiny’s repeated lumping of white people into strict categories or a late reveal of one supporting character’s sexual proclivities. It’s passable as a comedy, but it’s void of any sort of special cleverness that would allow it to function as a smart satire.

Butter is fine enough as cinematic additive, a little extra salt on an otherwise flavorless comedy, but the film doesn’t hold anything meaty enough to sink your teeth in. Copious food puns aside, Smith and Micallef have crafted a B-level comedy that seems to think it’s much, much smarter than it actually plays on screen. There’s laughs here, but there’s also no real brain or much of a heart.

The Upside: Jennifer Garner’s balls-out performance is both hilarious and horrifying to watch, Olivia Wilde similarly goes for broke, and any movie that features Hugh Jackman in a cowboy hat can’t be all bad.

The Downside: A very basic comedy trying to dress itself in satire clothes, Butter simply isn’t very smart, and it’s never willing to admit that.

On the Side: The last detail of Laura’s final butter sculpture is the best moment of the entire film, a mind-blowing little joke that speaks to how the entire film should have been shaped.