To Hollywood, the MIdwest is that amorphous blob in the middle of country that allows for the satire of corn-fed American values. Whenever a place such as Iowa serves as a film’s setting, as it does in “Butter,” you can be sure that small-town life is about to get put through the ringer.
A rather massive ensemble comedy, “Butter” takes this to an extreme by selecting a butter- carving competition as the focal point of the conflict. Obviously, we’re only meant to take this film as seriously as most people would take an actual butter-carving competition, which is to say, not much at all.
The film has two narrators. First, Jennifer Garner’s Laura Pickler, picturesque wife to the wealthy Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), butter-carving champion, and who hopes to parlay the esteem she and Bob have amassed over the years into becoming a political power couple. She’s a full-on caricature of the superficial, borderline psychotic wife, the Lady Macbeth archetype minus the tragic consequences.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a humble foster child coping with being a black girl in a sea of white kids who somehow discovers a knack for butter-carving. Her narration involves a few too many jokes about crackers (not the food), but Shahidi turns out to be the film’s secret weapon.
Laura finds her world upside down when the butter competition folks pressure Bob to retire and he agrees. She decides she will enter the contest herself, but she faces stiff competition from young Destiny and also a cutthroat stripper (Olivia Wilde) whom Bob owes money. And when things don’t go her way, she isn’t afraid to stoop too low.
Writer Jason Micallef pushes the boundaries of decency in terms of language for a comedy that would otherwise be an easy PG-13. Between the excessive swearing and race-related jokes, “Butter” is definitely a bit cruder and more uninhibited of a comedy when you consider it centers on butter-carving. Jokes such as how one of Bob’s masterpiece carvings was “Schindler’s List” should give you a good sense of the boundaries the script threatens to cross. The mouth on Wilde’s stripper character is something to behold and even Garner goes overboard on the F- bombs.
Garner’s Pickler is a handful of a character and the actress’ biggest attempt at comedy to date. Her performance veers into hamming territory with some frequency, but she sets the tone for the film’s lack of self-seriousness, which proves pivotal to enjoying its odd, almost black sense of humor.
The comedy highlights come mostly from Shahidi and her interactions with Rob Corddry, who plays her foster father. They have a great partially improvised bit when he drops her off to go sign up for the contest in which they imagine what horrible things could be inside the building and that it could be much worse than having to commit to the competition. You haven’t seen a pre-teen deliver deadpan like she does, maybe ever.
Hugh Jackman also comes in late playing against type as Laura’s former high school boyfriend Boyd, a complete dolt who owns a car dealership and agrees to help her with some mischief in the competition. For fans of Burrell on “Modern Family,” he’s cast as a bit of a fool and completely non-extreme when compared to the shenanigans of his wife, Wilde’s Brooke, and others.
The script reaches for laughs a small but noticeable percentage of the time, but the fails are cushioned appropriately by the film’s cheeky attitude and absolute fearlessness when it comes to political correctness (specifically the lack thereof).
At the same time, “Butter” manages to achieve a level of sweetness, particularly through Destiny. As a foster child, the pity card makes her invulnerable and the way she maintains her demeanor while all the other characters (except her foster parents) surrounding her shame themselves with stupidity helps us to like her even more. She cuts through all the others’ B.S. with, to be blunt, a butter knife.
With a carefree indie spirit and a unique context with which to present its humor, “Butter” manages to stand out among contemporary comedies, even if its quirkiness isn’t quite as effective as it would like to believe.
Directed by Jim Field Smith
Written by Jason A. Micallef
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Yara Shahidi, Olivia Wilde