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'Butter' is too smug for satirical portrayal of country life

The Weinstein Company

By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 8, 2012

In “Butter,” the Iowa State Fair is a hillbilly pageant of ignorant country people. They are simple-minded fools who care about butter. They don’t think dinosaurs existed. They live in isolation from minorities. They're stupid. They're idiots, corn-fed American jingoists, rednecks, war mongers, neanderthals — caricatures who should not represent the majority of fair-goers, or the people of the Midwest.

See, “Butter” is too smug, too lacking in nuance. It goes for the jugular, but lacks the teeth — that requisite sharp insight — so it flails instead. “Butter” never enlightens, never makes its audience ponder the new far right of the Republican Party. What you're left with is a ham-fisted farce, a condescending, glorified soapbox, a sneering “fuck you” from those liberal elitists who give liberals a bad name.

Jennifer Garner (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green”) plays Laura Pickler, the wife of a butter-sculpture champion who has been asked to step aside after having dominated the competition for 15 years. Not wanting to give up her husband’s streak — butter is all she has — Pickler enters the competition herself. Little does she know her foremost competitor, Destiny (Yara Shahidi, “Salt”), an orphan girl who has recently moved into a foster home, possesses an incredible gift for this niche Midwestern craft. And so ensues a story whose quaintness is blown out of proportion — butter-sculpture turns into an allegory of power.

Plainly said, Pickler is a caricature of the Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman archetype. Beneath that prim dress and punctual attitude is a scandalous past and a big ball of crazy. The “dumb, conservative female politician” image has become so massive a comedic target, you don’t need a sharpshooter like Hawkeye taking aim to hit a bullseye — you need a meme. But to be fair, Garner’s performance is an unqualified success. Her scenes are nicely balanced between addled ideology, hypocrisy and desperation. While she has no real “I can see Russia from my house!” moments, she does rally a few laughs from the audience with a couple of brainless quotables.

On the other side of the spectrum, completely devoid of politics, Shahidi hands in an innocent portrayal of a girl who’s been through hard times, but responds with optimism, graciousness and beauty. A minority character stuck in a mostly white town, the story would’ve done well to focus on either her journey as a foster child in an increasingly multicultural society, or Pickler and her obsession with social status.

As it is, writer Jason A. Micallef’s script ends up fumbling both. “Butter” is never able to easily juggle both the two main storylines and the subplots, the most burdensome being Brooke Swinkowski, played by Olivia Wilde (“People Like Us”). Wilde is funny, sexy, “wild,” raunchy — and completely unnecessary. After the first twenty minutes, her role in the film is inconsequential, with almost her entire screen time devoted to being an irreverent gag. “Butter” loses inertia where none should be lost, bringing all its loose ends together in a schmaltzy, uninspiring finale, the satiric elements left ripe and unexploited.

Director Jim Field Smith (“She’s Out of My League”) brings little style to the picture, too. Besides a nice monologue scene with Garner, for the most part he can point a camera in the general direction of the action. It’s competent cut-and-paste-the-script filmmaking. By the time you get home, almost every featherweight punch thrown at you will have melted away. Butter, indeed.


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